Rumors of Saab's demise are greatly exaggerated.
Brand sales improved by just a squeak last year - 0.5 percent. But that was better than General Motors' overall decline of 4.3 percent.
It didn't help Saab morale that GM killed a plan for Subaru to produce an eagerly awaited Saab version of the Subaru B9 Tribeca.
And then this year began with the representative for GM's new megashareholder Kirk Kerkorian proposing that GM kill the Saab brand.
Florida dealer Al Leo Sr. remains upbeat. Leo, a longtime Big 3 dealer whose son urged him to add Saab in 1999, reports steadily rising sales from his two new Tampa Bay-area Saab stores.
This year, as Saab and GM start a new structure for the franchise's dealer council, Leo stepped in as chairman.
He spoke with Staff Reporter Lindsay Chappell.
Saab has just restructured its national dealer council. What happened?
Until last year, we had the Saab Business Team, which was an independent body run with Saab Cars USA.
Now, with the integration of Saab into General Motors, we've changed to a GM-type dealer council. We now have GM line executives in
our meetings with us, in addition to our Saab national and regional teams.
It communicates to us that GM is there, that this is GM talking to GM dealers.
I think it's a plus because it lets our non-GM dealers feel for the first time that they're part of GM now.
We probably have 70 or 80 Saab dealers who have never been affiliated with GM. They've been diehard Saab people. So to them, this is pretty reassuring, in case they remained skeptical.
GM has had a role in Saab for a few years. Is this really the first effort to bring the non-GM dealers into the organization?
They attended their first GM meeting last September in Las Vegas. That was the first time those dealers were exposed to a GM-type national meeting.
They met our line executives and the GM line executives, and it was sort of, "Welcome to the club."
Do Saab dealers perceive GM's ownership as a good thing right now?
I think we realize that Saab needs GM for research and development. The first 9-5 was almost all GM inspired. The 9-3 was our first fully integrated GM car.
It's good to be a part (of GM).
But our own people still make the calls about whether we want to participate in a GM program or not, whether it's a new vehicle or something like the GM employee pricing.
We don't want to lose the cachet of Saab.
And yet, just in January, we heard Jerry York, the representative of GM shareholder Kirk Kerkorian, publicly urging GM to kill Saab. How did that go over among the dealers?
It was very disconcerting to hear a major GM shareholder say we ought to throw Saab out.
And GM was very quick to respond. We got a letter right away from (Saab General Manager) Jay Spenchian assuring us that that this is not the plan.
His letter quoted GM Chief Financial Officer Fritz Henderson, whose previous job was running GM of Europe, including Saab.
Fritz is quoted saying that much of the decision to keep or get rid of Saab is determined by Europe, not by the U.S. He's quoted saying that Jerry doesn't understand the situation in Europe.
You can't just pull all of Saab production out of the GM plan.
You can't make a decision like that based on Saab having a very small slice of the U.S. market.
You can't just stop. We're not Oldsmobile. There are other countries involved.
Another shock was GM's decision to sell its interest in Subaru, which effectively killed the deal for Saab to get a crossover based on the Subaru B9 Tribeca.
We wanted that car.
Saab was there from the earliest development of the Tribeca. So we were very disappointed, and we were vocal about expressing our disappointment.
But, you've got to hit the ball from where it lands.
It just so happened that that situation unfolded only a week before our national dealer meeting. And at the meeting, Jay brought it up first thing. He told us that he'd get us another car to replace it.
And I believe he will. I don't know what it will be, but with all the GM platforms, I'm sure we'll find something that maintains the Saab cachet.
What do the dealers want?
We definitely need a seven-passenger vehicle. The dealers all agree with that, and we have voiced it to Saab.
Are they listening? I know Saab dealers have desired for the last couple of years to pull more of Saab's management control away from Sweden to the United States.
Yes, they're good at listening and responding. And sure, the American portion of Saab would like to see less Swedish control.
But we have to be careful. Saab has a global program. It's the only global brand that GM has. We have to have continuity in processes and planning and building.
But last year we were able to come out with an American initiative in advertising, the "Born from Jets" campaign. That was our people. It was Jay Spenchian, making a call on the U.S. market. It was good for us.
That was brand-image advertising. How did it help you?
Saab's main obstacle has been getting onto the shopping list of customers with other European makers.
In the past, we focused on the independent thinking of Saab buyers. And that was OK.
But when Jay came in, we really had some products to offer. We had the 9-7X. We had this aerodynamic heritage. So they went with a rush of pretty high-impact advertising last fall. You saw the spots during football games. It pumped us up. You could sense it in the dealership the day after the ads would run. People would call. It put us on the map.
My own business is up 50 percent from 2004. I'm very optimistic.
There also has been an initiative to update the franchise over the past few years. How has that gone?
It's been good for us. Saab has about 240 dealers, and more than half of us have built new buildings in the past four years.
I myself have two new buildings, both only 2 years old.
If you buy a car here in Florida or buy one in New York, you'll see basically the same dealership and ambience.
It's very a minimalistic Scandinavian design.
In my opinion, it was maybe a little too minimalistic. They came back said it's OK to add some flowers or whatever.