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The role of cars has changed

The role of cars has changed

The head of Oldsmobile since April 1992, Rock started his career with General Motors in 1960 with the Buick Division's sales and marketing departments. In 1978, he became Buick's assistant general sales manager for the eastern half of the U.S. In 1979, he became executive director of marketing for GM's Holdens Automotive Ltd in Australia. Three years later, he returned to the U. S. as manager of vehicle sales and service for GMC Truck, and later was named general manager of the GMC Truck Division. In 1992, he was elected vice president of the GM Corp. and named general manager of the Oldsmobile Division.

Cars are not the status symbols they once were, as consumers are finding other items, such as computers, to spend money on. Automakers have to understand that, says Rock.

Design News: Are cars getting too expensive?

Rock: In a macro sense, there is a "pooring" of America. We have lots of job creation, but the jobs are in the service sector. We have exported manufacturing jobs. Beyond that, the car is not the status symbol it once was. The fact is, there are no lousy cars today. Cars last longer and we have leasing, so people don't have to buy new ones so often. People might say to themselves that they'll buy a used car, and spend the money they saved to purchase a new computer. The role and place of cars has changed, and we have to understand that. One other important thing about pricing: People can find out what their car should cost on the Internet. We may eventually sell cars over the Internet, tieing in our retailers. Many of our older buyers will still want to go to a dealer, and many will continue to push for a discount after we have quoted our best price. Simplified pricing will be essential.

Q: What is the genesis of the "New Oldsmobile," and what was the problem with the old company?

A: Traditionally, we have been a step-up division from Chevrolet, and a domestic-based product. We also competed directly with Buick. The market demographics include people mainly in their late 50's, from both blue collar and upper middle income sectors. In 1992, General Motors said the company didn't need both Olds and Buick, and that one would have to go. Buick had sales momentum. Olds didn't, partly because of product quality. There were deficiencies. When I arrived in May 1992, we held focus groups with retailers and decided to reposition our products to appeal to import buyers. We also wanted an environment closer to Saturn--to take the complexity out of the buying and owning experience.

Q: How did you approach making the engineering changes necessary for your re-positioning?

A: We purchased several foreign cars and drove them, noting the attributes we admired. Then, we had meetings to discuss the attributes we want- ed our cars to have. We wanted to build brand character, and we knew there hadn't been any brand character for Oldsmobile, at least in terms of nimbleness. Our first attempt at changing that was the 32-valve Aurora, and that car proves we have the ability to develop great cars. So, we feel we got to First Base. But, we know that repeatability is important. We have a long way to go. Our next step is the new Bravada, which we will introduce in November.

Q: Do American car owners want more power in engines?

A: They do want more power, but they want usable power. They want a torque curve where you can feel the power and actually put it to use. They don't care about the power at the top end of the curve, because they don't run their cars there anyway.

Q: Should government force the development of fuel-conservation, safety, and other technology through legislation?

A: Achieving emissions reductions, safety improvements, and fuel economy often involves conflicting physics. Safety, for example, implies heavy and sturdy, while fuel efficiency implies light-weight vehicles. I do believe CAFE is important because gas is a finite re- source. In a perfect world, market forces should drive technology on all fronts. But if we didn't have legislated standards to meet, would we have met them? I don't know. I believe that intelligent dialog and tax and market incentives at the manufacturer and buyer level, rather than punitive laws, is a better way to go.

Q: You seem to be the only GM division emulating Saturn. How is that process working out?

A: It's going well. We have 40% of our retailers strongly on board, 30% heading that way, and another 30% who don't see the need for change. We have one empowered person calling on each retailer to service and guide them. We are doing everything we can to simplify pricing.

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