For some executives, being posted below the equator at GM Holden Ltd., General Motors Co.'s obscure Australian subsidiary, might have been a kind of banishment.
The Holden name -- not to mention its red, roaring lion logo -- draws blank stares from most Americans. The company has just one assembly plant and sells fewer than 150,000 cars a year.
But when Mark Reuss was named Holden chairman in February 2008 as his first major overseas posting, he jumped in as more than a caretaker. Indeed, GM insiders say his success Down Under was the reason Reuss was named head of North American operations this month -- just a short time after returning from Australia in October to be vice president of global engineering.
"He was the third chairman-CEO of Holden in as many years, so Reuss wasn't expected to do much," said Marton Pettendy, managing editor at GoAutoNews, an Australian industry publication. "But he became one of the most beloved CEOs ever at Holden."
The challenges GM faced in Australia mirror what the company faces in the United States. The global financial crisis has hammered demand, and archrival Toyota Motor Corp. is staging a full-on assault.
Reuss, now 46, moved quickly to revitalize the lineup, shore up local manufacturing and integrate Holden's resources with global operations.
Key achievements during Reuss' 18-month Australian interlude:
-- Bringing production of the Holden Cruze small car to Australia from South Korea.
-- Rekindling exports to the United States with the Chevrolet Caprice police cruiser.
-- Implementing flexible shifts to cut costs and save jobs.
-- Introducing new technologies into the local lineup.
-- Winning government aid for Australia's auto industry.
Holden was Reuss' first international posting after 25 years with GM in various engineering jobs. Yet the American transplant won instant loyalty for fiercely promoting Holden's manufacturing and engineering talent.
When the bleary-eyed Reuss first stepped off the plane in Adelaide on a Saturday morning, then-marketing and sales chief Alan Batey didn't whisk him to a hotel or the office. It was off to a V8 Supercars race, the Down Under equivalent of NASCAR, in the blazing summer sun.
"You could say that was his first day on the job," Batey, now Reuss' successor as chairman and managing director, said in telephone interview. "He was blown away by all the fans in red Holden shirts. Mark really understood how strong the Holden brand is."
It wasn't long before Reuss himself was buying vintage Holden cars, including a 1959 RHD sedan that echoes the looks of a '55 Chevy, and participating in Holden car buff events.
Yet the fun was short-lived.