auto

GM emerges with new ideas, old favorites

Tara Baukus MelloAfter a scant 39 days in bankruptcy, the new General Motors emerged late last week with the strong message that it was already moving forward and making vast changes, not just to its management structure, but to the products it sells and the way it does business with its customers.

While it is 60.8 percent owned by the federal government, the new GM is still operated as if it were a private company. The management has been completely restructured with now one small executive committee, cutting the number of decision-makers in half, to eight, and greatly reducing the layers of management. Two of the most prominent voices that will be heard publicly in the coming months will be executives Fritz Henderson and Bob Lutz who have pledged to reach out and listen to past, current and prospective owners.

Henderson, GM's CEO since March, is now also overseeing all of the company's North American operations. At a press conference, he announced a "Tell Fritz" Web site to launch in August which aims to put him in direct contact with consumers. He also pledged to "review and respond to input everyday."

Lutz, a veteran in car design who held executive posts at BMW, Chrysler and Ford before joining GM in 2001 as head of creative design and more recently vice chairman, will also be a part of GM's new executive committee. Earlier this year, Lutz, 77, had announced his retirement at year's end but has decided to stay on in a new role as vice chairman in charge of creative design, brands, marketing and communications. In that role, he will not only oversee new car design but will take charge of advertising and marketing campaigns.

The new GM will be leaner than before, with just four brands -- Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC -- and about 35 different vehicles for sale, down from about 90. Still, Lutz and his team will have their hands full rebuilding the company's image and introducing a large number of new products over the next 18 months, including 10 vehicles in the U.S. and 17 vehicles in other parts of the world.

Among its new products will be the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car, scheduled for arrival in 2010, as well as a small, highly fuel-efficient car built in the U.S. There's also speculation that the strong-selling Pontiac G8, which is assembled at GM subsidiary Holden Ltd. in Australia, will be continued as a flagship sedan for Chevrolet and possibly called the Caprice. If so, it would likely be priced higher and offer more amenities than the Chevrolet Malibu. A high-performance version could be sold to law enforcement.

While marketing dollars will certainly be spent on new models, GM does have several products that are proving to be popular even with minimal advertising and a tarnished corporate image. Among them is the new 2010 Chevrolet Camaro, which sold more than 9,000 units in June alone. Demand is so high that dealers report selling Camaros literally off the transport truck. GM says it has just a six-day supply, where a 60-day supply is the industry standard. And for the first time since 1993, the Camaro outsold its chief rival, the Ford Mustang. Chevrolet had debuted the Camaro in 1966 and discontinued production in 2002. It revived the brand with a fifth-generation Camaro that began production in March this year.

Not only does it appear that the new GM will have some attention-getting products, but the way it does business appears to be changing, too. With about 40 percent of its dealerships closing but still nearly double the number of Toyota dealers, GM's dealers are stepping up their marketing and customer service efforts to attract new customers to showrooms and service departments. In addition, GM is talking with eBay to conduct a test to sell new vehicles in California via a bidding process or at a predetermined, no-haggle price.

In a statement on GM's FastLane blog, CEO Henderson best articulated the new GM's focus when he listed the company's new priorities as, "customers, cars and culture." He said, "I list customers first because they are our top priority. For some time now, we haven't been as focused on this simple point as we should have been. Now, we're going to be obsessed with it -- because if we don't get this right, we don't get to do anything else. It's that simple."

Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories.

Tara Baukus Mello is a freelance writer who has written about automotive topics of interest to consumers since 1995. If you have a car question, e-mail it to us at Driving for Dollars.

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