DETROIT -- The recession and General Motors' bankruptcy filing gave the automaker an inadvertent but timely opportunity to restructure itself to better reflect the country's diverse and changing population, said Mark Reuss, GM's president of North America.
GM at one time "recruited as a company that sold trucks in the Midwest," Reuss said at the Rainbow PUSH Global Automotive Summit here on Wednesday.
But considering that minorities are fast becoming majorities in select areas of the country, including New York and Los Angeles, GM has placed talented minorities in a number of leadership positions, Reuss said. He said those executives are helping set the company's tone for diversity now and into the future.
'We used that crisis'
"We had an opportunity to get that thinking into a company that was traditionally very bureaucratic and very white male oriented, and start to reflect in our products, our sales and marketing what the United States, Canada and Mexico have become today and in the future," Reuss said.
"You never want a good crisis to go to waste. We used that crisis to redo and rethink who we are and what we want to be," he said.
Among the female and minority executives Reuss cited were Alicia Boler-Davis, senior vice president for global quality and customer experience; Grace Lieblein, vice president for global purchasing and supply chain; Ed Welburn, vice president of global design; and Eric Peterson, U.S. vice president for diversity dealer relations.
"These people are in the most powerful jobs in the company," Reuss said. "The influence these folks have on a power basis in our company will change it faster than anything I can say today."
Separately, Reuss and others at the conference reviewed the status of minority dealers and suppliers.
Reuss said GM is continuing with its goal of adding 25 minority-owned dealerships by year end. He noted that Greg Jackson, owner of Prestige Automotive Group in suburban Detroit, was awarded a Cadillac dealership about three months ago, but would not comment on the company's overall progress.
In July, at the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers annual conference, Reuss said GM had made seven appointments so far and 45 candidates were waiting in the wings.
Peterson said GM has 201 minority-owned dealerships, of which 36 are owned by African-Americans.
Toyota dealers 'ready to grow'
Osamu Nagata, CEO of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America Inc., said Toyota has assisted minority dealers who lacked the financial resources to acquire dealerships and that the company did not lose any minority-owned dealerships during the economic downturn.
He said those dealers are "ready to grow with us."
According to data compiled by NAMAD, there were 108 minority-owned Toyota and Lexus dealerships at the end of 2012.
Still, at a press conference during the event, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said African-American-owned dealerships and suppliers were disproportionately lost during the recession. He said the groups' numbers are not growing with their minority and nonminority peers as the industry rebounds.
NAMAD data show that the number of dealerships owned by African-Americans dropped to 261 at the end of 2012 from 263 in 2011 and from a high of 751 in 2005.
Leon Richardson, president of the National Association of Black Automotive Suppliers, said the number of members in his group has dwindled to 16 from 64 about four years ago.
"It's not that they can't get business. It's just that they haven't been able to get the volumes they need to sustain their business," said Richardson, who also is CEO of ChemicoMays, a suburban Detroit maker of industrial chemicals.
"It's hard to rebuild a 20-year-old supplier company in just a couple of years," he said. "I think the trend is not moving toward more African-American suppliers, quite frankly."