Friday, October 02, 2009

606 A Tale of Two Rogers

606 A Tale of Two Rogers

Herein is the tale of Rogers, Smith and Penske.

Roger Smith, Chairman of General Motors and star of the movie "Roger And Me" developed the concept of the Saturn car at General Motors in the 1980s. And then there's Roger Penske who killed it.

Smith was the object of scorn in the film "Roger & Me" by Michael Moore in 1989. And he was the brains behind the Saturn automobile. Roger Penske is a famous race car driver and the head of a company -- a dealer network -- that sells oodles of cars. Penske wanted to buy the Saturn brand from General Motors and almost did. Smith invented the car and got kicked out.

GM set up a little factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee. It was to make small, economical cars that competed with Toyota and Honda and Nissan and Hyundai and others. It had workers with input into the production and design processes. It was going to be the Great White Hope in the battle with the Japanese Yellow Peril.

Somewhere along the way, Smith was pushed into retirement and GM's division chiefs, those from Pontiac and Chevy and Olds and Buick and Cadillac started crabbing about the resources the new "little" car was absorbing and about the one-price-fits-all policy and the touchy- feely dealers. And Saturn became a maverick brand and a burden on GM traditionalists.

A small problem arose. Penske, a bright guy and car racing champ couldn't find anyone to make the cars. Renault rejected him. And although we don't know for sure, so did everyone else.

So Roger P told GM the deal was off.

So now, the 13-thousand people who built or sold Saturn are gone or soon will be. The car itself was marginal. The buying experience was brilliant. No haggle, no negotiation. Bagels and cream cheese in the dealerships. Applause for the buyers.

There were just two problems: the cars were as good as Toyotas or Hondas or Hyundais. And the internal politics of GM, with semi-autonomous divisions like Chevy and Buick and Cadillac diverted the resources Saturn needed.

Penske is a car genius. The Saturn sales policy was a radical and brilliant idea. But genius or no, and brilliant or no, you can't sell these things if the only people able to make them won't.


--Correction: as soon as I wrote the shrapnel about not wanting to play guitar anymore, the guitars rebelled. They forced themselves on me. And since I am badly outnumbered, I waved the white flag and resumed playing.

--Congrats to the old boss, Mike Bloomberg, who has risen even higher this year on Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans. He's now number eight with 20 billion. Buddy can you spare a bil?

--Saluting Sully Sullenberger, who is back in the air. This is the US Airways pilot who landed his plane in the Hudson River saving all those lives. He's doing safety work and speech making for both himself and the airline these days, but every once in awhile, he says, he needs to remember what it's like to " a line pilot."

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2009

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