REALIGNMENT MAY BE STALLING GM SEARCH

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General Motors Corp. still hasn't filled its top marketing job, a delay that may be related to a rethinking of how the automaker plans future products.

GM is said to be considering a plan that would reduce the power of the vehicle divisions to decide what kind of cars should be built and sold. At least some of that responsibility is likely to go to manufacturing operations, in order to cut costs and reduce the time it takes to change over plants to making new products.

It's possible that a change could also enhance the influence of the person hired as VP-group executive in charge of sales, service and marketing for North American Operations, according to some observers.

J. Michael Losh, who formerly held the position, was promoted to exec VP-chief financial officer on July 1.

At the insistence of Chairman John Smale, GM's search has included outside candidates with consumer marketing backgrounds in package goods and other industries. But GM hasn't been able to attract a heavy hitter from the outside, apparently because the position as currently structured wouldn't provide enough power to sort out the automaker's confusing brand identities.

"They're rethinking the position," said one executive close to the search committee. "There have been good candidates who didn't want the job because they didn't see how they could come in and make significant changes."

Pontiac VP-General Manager John Middlebrook emerged as the candidate of GM executives who want to promote from within. But the GM board didn't act on the position when it met Nov. 7, and won't meet again until Dec. 5.

"The longer the process goes on, the more likely the job will go to an outside person," said one executive at a GM ad agency.

But to attract an outsider, GM may need to give the position more clout in managing brands.

GM's current system has produced costly complexity that often doesn't translate into consumer benefits.

At the same time, GM has failed to anticipate broad consumer trends. A prime example is how the company underestimated the huge surge of interest in sport-utility vehicles and minivans.

It won't be easy for any outsider to implement radical change.

"The division general managers are the stewards of the brands," said one GM marketing executive. "If the divisions are going to have responsibility for marketing, you can't completely cut them off from planning the products."

Automotive News, a sister publication of Advertising Age, contributed to this story.

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