DETROIT -- As president of General Motors North America, there are few corners of the business that Mark Reuss doesn't nose into.
On a recent weekend, he logged 500 miles tooling around in Cadillac's forthcoming XTS sedan so he could offer feedback to engineers and marketers. He's on the front lines of GM's public relations battle amid a federal investigation into the safety of the Chevrolet Volt. He oversees GM's closely scrutinized North American production levels and incentive spending.
But Reuss is especially preoccupied with another part of the business these days: dealers.
"We have some pretty lofty goals to be No. 1 in customer satisfaction and service," Reuss told Automotive News last week. "I think we have a rare opportunity to do it with the dealerships that we have."
Reuss, 48, makes no apologies for one part of that pursuit that has some GM dealers crying foul: The extensive, some say stringent, program to improve the look and feel of dealerships. He calls GM's facility image campaign "by far the fairest and most equitable" in the industry.
Through its Essential Brand Elements program, GM helps dealers defray the cost of their store overhauls through quarterly payments that will run through 2016. The cash can total tens of thousands of dollars annually for small dealers and hundreds of thousands for larger ones, in many cases covering the entire cost of the store makeover.
Reuss wants to dispel the perception that GM's program is mandatory. There are plenty of dealers in small markets who are choosing not to follow GM's image guidelines, he says.
"I'm OK with that. I don't want to penalize anybody," he said. "But we want world-class stores. And we're going to help you do it."
In the two years since he was elevated from GM's top engineer to lead North America, Reuss delved into dealer issues with a hands-on zeal rare for an executive at his level, dealers say.
Last year he counseled a GM field rep who fretted over whether she could buy and expense Christmas cards for some dealers she calls on. (Reuss said to go ahead. "'These are your customers, right?'" he told her.)
This summer he directed 650 GM field staffers each to adopt a dealership -- as he did -- and, "for the next few years, we're all going to make sure that dealership is excellent."
Reuss spent 2 1/2 hours at his own adopted dealership one day this month. He pored over everything from incentive strategies to how to drum up more service business on suspensions and steering.
Reuss touched on several other GM-related topics during the interview:
-- Suppliers: Reuss acknowledged that GM's relationship with suppliers still suffers from its historic purchasing philosophy, "which was, on a global basis, to shop the lowest cost."
But he said things have improved over the past year under GM purchasing chief Bob Socia, who has been encouraging suppliers to offer innovations and cost-saving ideas earlier in the process in exchange for a better shot a future business.
"You can't just say, 'Hey, trust me,'" Reuss said. The current message: "If you share with us some of the really great ideas you have, you're going to be rewarded -- not only on this, but you'll be rewarded future business."
-- Fuel economy: Reuss believes GM eventually will offer an electrification option on "most models," as GM and other automakers strive to meet the proposed 54.5 mpg corporate average fuel economy by 2025.
He points to GM's eAssist mild hybrid system as a good example of a technology that will help GM meet the looming target of 35.5 mpg in 2016.
Reuss said "2016 is sort of the challenge for us right now. That's what we're working really hard on."
-- Diesel: As GM readies a Chevy Cruze diesel for 2013, Reuss said GM "can't ignore the fundamental efficiency of what a diesel gives you, the amount of torque and the amount of fun it is to drive."
Reuss said he recently took a Cruze diesel test model for a spin. "It's pretty darn fun to drive. We're going to get some people buying that thing."
-- Racing: Reuss said Chevrolet's recent decision to return as an engine supplier to the IndyCar circuit next year will help GM develop better engines and aerodynamics.
"They are going to be our youngest and brightest engineers," Reuss said of the people who will work on the program.
"We're going to hire them into GM ... for that series to do aerodynamics, chassis development, fuel delivery. And then they're going to go back into our main line and do our cars."