DETROIT -- After replacing Fritz Henderson as General Motors' CEO last week, Ed Whitacre seemed to know just where to turn first. Within three days he put the vitally important North American operations in the hands of a new top lieutenant, Mark Reuss.
Insiders say elevating Reuss, the company's top engineer, is a sure sign the new boss wants big culture changes at GM -- fast.
As the point man in North America, Reuss, 46, is on the spot. Although his name has some old-GM baggage -- his dad, Lloyd, was president in the 1990s -- he displays some decidedly new-GM thinking. For example:
-- Listen to the critics who have the harshest things to say about GM, not just "give them the finger."
-- Instill a when you find it, fix it approach to engineering problems.
-- Make employees remember they're in the car business -- even if it means rounding them up with the corporate public address system to come down to the parking lot to look at new models.
In an interview last week -- three days before his latest promotion -- Reuss, who became vice president of global engineering last summer, said he is spending loads of time listening to critics of GM vehicles and is adamant about the need to shake up the status quo.
"Some of them are negative, but that's OK," he says of GM's detractors. "We just went through bankruptcy. Who are we kidding?"
Although he acknowledges there's a lot to be done, he insists GM "can be a brand new place."
And Reuss, who ran GM's Holden business in Australia for 18 months before returning to the United States last summer, isn't shy about jamming a finger in your back to get you moving.
That came through recently when attendance was sparse at a GM employee ride-and-drive day. When workers stayed in their cubicles instead of sampling the products, a frustrated Reuss got on the building's intercom to urge employees to get outside and drive the cars. It freaked people out a bit because the system is typically only used for fire drills.
It said a lot about Reuss. The message: GM engineering is moving in new directions. And it wouldn't be smart not to join in.
For example, GM will make engineering changes quickly when problems are discovered, not wait until the next model year -- or even longer. "That is quite different that what we did" before, said Reuss.
An example of Reuss' quick-fix approach:
The Buick Regal that goes on sale in the United States in the second quarter of 2010 essentially is a rebadged version of the Opel Insignia, which has been on sale in Europe for more than a year. When an engineer recently called attention to a problem with the Insignia, old GM thinking would have held that it was too late to make a change for the Regal's U.S. launch.
But Reuss ordered an immediate fix -- and said the launch won't be delayed. "This is a huge culture change," he said. "We are trying to get a culture of true continuous improvement every time we do something to the platform of the car for a local market."
Also, Reuss is stepping back from what has become a mantra at GM: You can build any model -- assuming the platform is the same -- at any plant in the world.
He's putting that sacred cow out to pasture, pushing engineers to demand regional modifications of vehicles to suit local driving conditions and consumer tastes.
Those changes include reducing vehicle mass -- smaller brakes, lighter engine compartment components -- for vehicles that are developed on the same platform but will never be equipped with larger, heavier engines. The benefit: better fuel economy.
"We want to be able to take a global platform and put the DNA of any one country or market into that car by the people who live in that market," he said. "There are brand differences and there are country and market differences."
Reuss also moved the unit that inspects failed parts returned from dealer warranty work into the engineering building at the GM Tech Center. He wants engineers to go there daily to see failed parts and get moving quicker on fixes. The unit already existed, but was in a remote site and the process was slower.
"We are looking at those parts very carefully," he said. "That is a much more focused effort than in the past."