AUTO MARKETING;TOUGH TIMES INGRAINED IN DETROIT BOOMER EXECS;THE FOLLY OF COMPLACENCY KEEPS LONG-TIMERS ON EDGE AGAINST COMPETITION

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James holden and Bobbie Gaunt are rivals, but share a lot in common.

Mr. Holden, 44, and Ms. Gaunt, 49, executives in sales and marketing at Chrysler Corp. and Ford Motor Co., respectively, typify the spirit of the baby boom generation now leading Detroit's Big 3.

These up-and-comers watched their companies survive brushes with death, and the comeback efforts instilled values that deeply influence their strategic thinking.

Specifically, they are changemakers who challenge the status quo, take chances on product introductions, urge competitiveness with imports and refuse to underestimate today's car buyer.

JAPAN'S WAKE-UP CALL

"The generation coming through the business now at senior levels, having heard the wake-up call of the Japanese and having watched the near-death experiences at the companies, are less locked into the traditional paradigms of the companies," says Mr. Holden, exec VP-sales and marketing at Chrysler.

He says, for example, that Chrysler relies less on market data that was once considered a necessity at the company.

Mr. Holden recalls Chrysler's launch of the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan minivans in 1983, saying there was no market data to prove consumers wanted a minivan. Last year, Chrysler sold nearly 500,000 minivans, according to Automotive News.

Ms. Gaunt, general marketing manager of Ford division, remembers the day a top executive told her that Ford had bet its future on the Taurus' then-radical jelly bean design. Taurus, Detroit's most successful challenge to the Honda Accord, was among the best-selling cars last year with 366,000 units sold, AN reported.

TRAUMA SURVIVORS

The shared values of these two executives grow out of the trauma of the late 1970s and early 1980s when American industry suffered from foreign competition and inefficiency.

In Detroit, the seeds for the near disasters were sown in the '50s and '60s when the Big 3's unquestioned dominance of the American auto market led to arrogance. Success convinced Detroit that its formula of hooking the World War II generation on Fords, Plymouths and Chevrolets and eventually walking them through to Lincolns, Chryslers and Cadillacs would hold true for the baby boomers.

It didn't. Mr. Holden's and Ms. Gaunt's first cars, both purchased before they joined the auto companies, demonstrate that fact.

"A 1963 Porsche 356B," Mr. Holden says about his first car he bought in 1969. "I just had to have a Porsche."

Then he quickly rattles off the car's serial number. "I knew that because I spent more time under it than in it."

Ms. Gaunt had better luck with her car, but not with the reception she got from her parents.

"It was a '66 Volkswagen. It was red. It got great mileage, and I could afford it," says Ms. Gaunt, who was a secretary when she bought the car.

While Ms. Gaunt loved her VW, her father, a World War II veteran, was perplexed about the Bug in the driveway. "A German car. Why?" she remembers her father asking.

Mr. Holden joined Ford in 1973 in its computer operations department and held various service and marketing positions before moving to Chrysler.

Ms. Gaunt started her career at Ford in the Pittsburgh zone office because Chrysler and GM wouldn't take her, she says. Although it seems hard to fathom today, 25 years ago Ford was the only domestic auto company with a management training program for women-another sign of how the baby boom generation changed Detroit.

Ms. Gaunt doubted the Big 3 then had marketing data on women's role in buying a vehicle at the time-even though she had purchased her first car six years before joining Ford.

"It wasn't until women started working and getting money that [auto] companies took them seriously," says Ms. Gaunt.

After five years on the job, both executives witnessed a trend that surprised them. They grew up in an era when "Made in Japan" meant cheap toys built from flimsy metal.

Ms. Holden says, "I remember in the early 1970s seeing the first Hondas and at first I scoffed at them. They were little boxes."

About five years later, Ms. Holden saw a couple of Accords parked in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. "These guys had made a lot of progress."

Ms. Gaunt's realization that the American car market was changing dramatically hit home when she attended a Ford focus group session as a mid-level marketing manager in California.

DIDN'T KNOW WHAT A FORD WAS

"We had people in the groups who didn't own a Ford, who didn't know what a Ford was," she says. Instead, they were enthusiastic owners of Japanese cars.

Mr. Holden says Chrysler's crisis mentality-honed through the government loan in the 1980s that saved the ailing company-attracted him to that company in 1981 as fleet development manager-trucks. In fact, although Chrysler was more agile and more willing to take risks than the other Detroit automakers, Mr. Holden still sensed the domestic auto industry in the 1980s had missed the mark in attracting sufficient numbers of his generation.

Detroit couldn't "expect baby boomers to follow like their parents did," he says.

Realizing that, Mr. Holden says the company has taken steps to put fun into driving with its Dodge Viper and new Plymouth Prowler. TV advertising for the hot rod-style Prowler, handled by Bozell, Southfield, Mich., is light-hearted, showing sneak peeks of the vehicle that tweaks boomers' memories of '60s muscle cars.

Likewise, Ms. Gaunt has risen through Ford's ranks to witness the company turnaround.

Along the way, they've learned to deplore complacency.

"Business as usual is a recipe for disaster," says Mr. Holden, citing the breakthrough designs of the Viper and the Prowler.

Adds Ms. Gaunt, "Never underestimate your competition."

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