Don Hudler, who was instrumental in starting Saturn Corp. and marketed the General Motors division as "a different kind of car company," then became a top Saturn dealer as a postscript to his 42-year GM career, died Thursday at his home in Charlotte, N.C. He was 87.
Hudler was involved in Saturn from the run-up to its 1990 launch until its 2010 shutdown after GM emerged from bankruptcy. As Saturn's first vice president of sales, service and marketing, he is credited with the idea of inviting owners of the brand's plastic-bodied cars to the innovative new factory in Spring Hill, Tenn., for "homecoming" celebrations.
"This grew from road rallies and service clinics and picnics and parties dealers have sponsored for their customers and which all have had fabulous turnouts," he told the Chicago Tribune at the first Saturn homecoming in 1994, when nearly 40,000 people converged on farm fields around the plant for tours, a Wynonna Judd concert and fireworks.
Hudler's marketing savvy helped make Saturn the industry's top brand for customer service and loyalty in its early years. He succeeded Skip LeFauve as Saturn's president in 1995 and added the title of chairman in 1997.
In 1999, Hudler retired to become chairman of Saturn Retail Enterprises, a GM subsidiary that grew to own more than 60 stores. When Texas regulators objected to the automaker having an ownership interest in dealerships, Hudler sold his GM stock so he could buy six stores in the Dallas and Houston areas himself.
A decade later, when GM's deal to salvage Saturn by selling it to Penske Automotive collapsed, Hudler told Automotive News he was in shock that the brand he helped build had reached the end of its road.
"I never like to admit that I don't have a plan," he said in October 2009. "But I was stunned by it."
Hudler began his GM career in Cleveland in 1956. He became one of the youngest advertising managers in company history, according to a biography from his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University, where he was a varsity track athlete. GM moved him to Madrid in 1980 for a regional marketing position before bringing him back to the U.S. several years later to become director of marketing policy and dealer relations.
Hudler became part of the planning process for Saturn and created its product distribution system, which divided the country into geographic territories covered by retailers that employed salaried salespeople and promised no-haggle pricing.
He is survived by his wife, Dannielle Colliver Hudler, a former GM advertising executive.