DETROIT -- John Rock, one of General Motors true maverick managers, died from cancer on Friday, Nov. 16, in Hot Springs, S.D. He was 71.
The brash and feisty Rock will probably be best remembered for his time in the mid- 1990s at Oldsmobile, where he tried to recast the struggling division using Saturns customer-first, no-haggle sales philosophy as a template.
Rock, son of a Chevrolet dealer, learned how to sell cars working at his familys dealership. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1959 with a degree in psychology and began his GM career as a district manager trainee with Buick in 1960.
GM promoted Rock to a number of management positions, first at Buick, then at GMs marketing staff in Detroit. In 1979, GM sent Rock to Australia, where he was executive director of marketing for Holdens Automotive Limited. Three years later, Rock was back in Detroit running GMC.
Boosted GMC sales
While at GMC, Rock pushed through two vehicles that went against the staid divisions image, the high-performance GMC Typhoon SUV and Syclone pickup. Though the vehicles didnt sell in large numbers, they drew attention to GMC from younger affluent buyers. That helped GMC post higher sales every year for the rest of the decade.
In 1992, GM appointed Rock as general manager of the troubled Oldsmobile division.
It didnt take long for Rock to come up with a plan to rebuild Olds: He would remake Oldsmobile in the image of GMs Saturn Corp., retailing a lineup of import-oriented cars that would be sold with no-haggle prices. Under Rock, Olds employees and dealers went though Saturns training program.
Rock earned the respect of most Olds dealers. Many bought into his plan and worked hard to implement it.
Dealers either loved him and respected him or were a bit passive about him. I dont think anyone disliked John, said Gus Buenz, the Oldsmobile public relations chief who worked with Rock in the 1990s.
Alan Starling, a former NADA president who also sold Oldsmobiles, said Rock understood dealers passions because of his background as the son of a dealer.
"There was no quit in John Rock. When he made up his mind he was going to do something, he was good for his word. He gave it 120 percent," said Starling.
Buenz said Rocks frankness with the media, dealers and others didnt cause too much heartburn at GM.
John was forthright. He could be a bit gruff and was very frank, but he was also extremely intellectual.
Rock stuck around long enough to see the flagship Oldsmobile Aurora launched in 1995 and retired the next year after a meeting with his boss at the time, former GM North American president Ron Zarrella.
He recalled that day in an interview with Motor Trend magazine in 2006.
When Ron called me down in September 1996, he said, John, you know I just dont see anything at Oldsmobile that makes me comfortable. I said, well everything in my life comes from General Motors. My father was a dealer for 40 years; its the only job I ever had.
The one thing I am not going to do is get into a pissing contest with my boss. And the next thing I am not going to do is get ornery and sit in the corner and count paper clips for a couple of years. I said, If you want my ass outta here, Ill gladly do that. So we shook hands and were probably the friendliest we ever were.
Rock also told Motor Trend he was not bitter about GMs decision to close Oldsmobile.
Rick Wagoner is a smart guy. He was just entering the tunnel, and he saw this distant light. He didnt know for sure whether it was a freight train or how fast it was coming.