GM last week named Saturn President Richard "Skip" LeFauve, 59, to the additional title of VP-group executive of the new group. By pulling the unit more tightly into its orbit, GM hopes Saturn's successful marketing image will rub off on its other divisions.
"He is Mr. Saturn," said Jim Wangers, senior managing partner of Automotive Marketing Consultants, Warren, Mich. "He has identified himself very nicely with not only the product, but the dealers, the attitude and the experience of Saturn."
Mr. LeFauve's biggest marketing challenge will be applying some of Saturn's philosophy to other small-car divisions while keeping costs down. GM's overall cost-cutting strategy is to make North American operations more efficient.
"To say that GM is planning to `Saturnize' the rest of the corporation-that is a whole lot harder to do than to say," Mr. Wangers said. "The economy prohibits GM from spending the kind of money it takes to over-service [customers]."
Mr. LeFauve assured the media and employees last week that his new position would not change Saturn's "unique labor agreement, organizational structure, marketing approach and the freedom to continue to innovate in those areas." He said the small-car alliance would involve the "sharing of technology, ideas and experience."
Most of Mr. LeFauve's background is in design and manufacturing. He began his GM career in 1956 as an engineer with Packard Electric Division. He went to Saturn in 1986, succeeding William Hoglund, now an exec VP handling head marketing duties for North American Operations until that crucial post is filled.
When Mr. LeFauve came on board, Saturn was just a speck in the galaxy of the small-car market. Now it is considered a marketing success despite being a costly $5 billion project for GM.
Saturn is expected to post its first operating profit this year. For the first nine months, unit sales rose 17% to 215,741. Just for September, unit sales shot up up 48% to 26,769. Unit sales for other cars in the new group were up 12.9% to 53,654 for the month, and 6.5% to 690,626 for the nine-month period.
One of Mr. LeFauve's biggest marketing accomplishments was bringing on agency Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, with the help of Thomas Shaver, then director of marketing services.
Since 1988, the agency has subtly sold America on Saturn's hometown feeling and superior customer service.
One of Mr. LeFauve's recent successes was the Saturn Homecoming, a relationship marketing event that brought 38,000 Saturn owners to the car's Spring Hill, Tenn., birthplace in June.
"Mr. LeFauve deserves a lot of credit for holding the Saturn organization together, which was very nicely personified by this year's event in Spring Hill," Mr. Wangers said.