Brash Boss Rides In To Save Oldsmobile

THINGS have not been going well for General Motors Corporation's Oldsmobile division, the nation's oldest automotive nameplate. As recently as 1986, Olds was selling more than a million cars a year. In 1992, the figures barely scraped the 400,000 mark. And with its share continuing to erode, Oldsmobile has been swept by rumors that it might eventually be consolidated into another GM division or eliminated.

But not if John Rock has his way. Since he was named Olds general manager last summer, he has led an aggressive campaign to reshape and rethink every aspect of the troubled division's traditions.

At first glance, Mr. Rock might not seem a likely instrument for change. The son of a Chevrolet dealer, he rose through the ranks during a time when GM prized camaraderie and an executive's skill on the golf course.

But Rock is anything but your typically slick automotive executive. Any politician who fancies himself a latter-day Harry Truman could take some lessons.

"There were no business cycles in farm country," he likes to recall about his youth, "just wet spells and dry spells. The wet spells were great, the dry spells were trouble."

While Rock's tendency to shoot from the lip is refreshingly unique, it has, at times, landed him in hot water. When GM's outside directors began to shake up the company's top management ranks last year, Rock was the only executive to publicly complain. When the papers were filled with rumors that Olds might be eliminated, Rock held a satellite news conference to object. Surprisingly, Rock's candor has won friends, even among those he was taking aim at - such as GM's new chairman, John Smale.

"If you want to make a change, you go with a guy like John Rock," says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "He's direct and straightforward.... He's strong-willed and ready to move as soon as he gets the facts."

Rock's willingness to speak his mind - and act on his ideas - has given the Olds division a much-needed morale boost.

"Some of his ideas are off the wall, but they seem to work," says Olds designer Bill Scott.

RECENTLY Rock usurped much of his own authority, handing it over to a new "Board of Governance." The board, made up of eight Oldsmobile dealers and another eight Olds executives, will decide a broad range of issues including how to spend its multimillion-dollar advertising and marketing budget.

"All my darned life I've wanted to be king, and when I finally get here, they declare it a democracy," Rock recently said in feigned frustration. But he'll remain Oldsmobile's prime catalyst for change. And change is the only way to revive a nameplate that Americans once strived to own. Today Olds has lost most of its brand image.

When an unidentified prototype of its 1995 Aurora was revealed to a consumer focus group recently, it scored higher than any other automobile in GM history. But when a version of the luxury sedan was revealed to a different consumer clinic with an "Oldsmobile" nameplate, the ratings sank by 20 percent. "That tells us our brand equity is near empty," Rock concedes.

To rebuild the division, Rock plans to liberally borrow some ideas from GM's successful Saturn division. Saturn's secret isn't as much the product as its marketing manners, which emphasize no-hassle sales and service.

"The '90s are a time when the customer truly is king," Rock emphasizes. "We've said that for years, but customers have all too often just had to take what we offered."

A number of Olds executives have already gone through Saturn's rigid customer satisfaction training program. Eventually, all Olds employees - including dealers and their salespeople - will be required to attend. "There is no magic bullet," Rock says.

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