At the Frankfurt auto show last week, General Motors Vice Chairman Steve Girsky was in an upbeat mood. After 15 straight years of bleeding market share in Europe, Opel's share is holding steady so far this year, albeit in a down market.
Now, Girsky told reporters, most of the questions he gets are about Opel's vehicle offerings, "as opposed to: 'Is the place going to live or die?"
Mood lightened, the quick-with-a-line New Yorker, who is chairman of Opel's supervisory board, shared some war stories about his last 22 months of scrambling to stabilize Opel.
He concedes that things were starting to "unravel" after he took the interim Opel job in late 2011, as the European financial crisis accelerated. In the span of one week last year, three top executives left the company, including former CEO Karl-Friedrich Stracke. Opel ranked a dead-last 22nd on something he calls the "misery index," an internal survey of consumers on their inclination toward European automotive brands. (It has since crawled up to 20th.)
The pressure was building. His wife had grown weary of him spending three weeks a month in Europe. And there was a pending visit by GM's board of directors to Opel's headquarters, its first in more than 20 years.
"Meanwhile, I'm trying to recruit somebody to actually take over this place," Girsky said.
He settled on two finalists for Opel's top post: Karl-Thomas Neumann, then the head of VW's China operation, and Stefan Jacoby, then Volvo's CEO. But at about that time, in September 2012, Jacoby had a mild stroke, which took him out of the running. (GM last month hired him as its head of international operations.) That left "a lot of pressure on me to land this guy," Girsky said of Neumann. So Girsky used this line to seal the deal:
"I said: Ah ... if it doesn't work, just blame it on the Americans."