Contrary to general perception, Mr. Zarrella has found General Motors Corp.'s top executives are receptive to major changes in the way the company is run.
The former president-chief operating officer of Bausch & Lomb Corp. said he wouldn't have taken GM's top marketing position unless he had the backing of top management all the way up to Chairman John Smale.
"I tried to assess whether someone from the outside could really have the impact and value-added for which the job was being positioned," said Mr. Zarrella, who took over Dec. 12 as VP and group executive in charge of North American sales, service and marketing.
It was Mr. Smale, the former Procter & Gamble Co. chairman, who insisted on considering outsiders, despite warnings that GM's hidebound culture would make it difficult for anyone without an auto industry background.
"The environment of the company today, at least at the senior level, is one of tremendous appetite for change," said Mr. Zarrella, interviewed last week during the North American International Show in Detroit.
"I am completely comfortable that from the top the path [for change] has been pretty well opened. The question is how far down the organization that can get."
"I came in to participate in what I think will be one of the most recognized business turnarounds in the history of American business," he said.
Mr. Zarrella's position is a key one for sorting out and building strong brand identities for the automaker's seven vehicle lines, which account for close to $100 billion a year in North American sales.
He was first contacted last May by Russell Reynolds Associates, an executive search firm, regarding the GM position. He first met with GM officials in August, and met with Mr. Smale near the end of the process. His background includes stops at Bristol-Myers Co., Playtex Corp. and Bausch & Lomb.
"My strengths are to put together organization mechanisms that can create some change and make things work. Hopefully, with the combination of being around consumer products industries, and the general management experience I've had of making organizations work, I can have some impact."
So far, Mr. Zarrella has spent most of his time meeting with vehicle division executives and design staff members. He doesn't plan to decide on any significant changes before April.
One issue he has begun to think about is affordability, as the retail price of an average car gets close to $20,000. Mr. Zarrella said it will be a particularly acute problem for young buyers.
"People who buy Nike shoes today are the people who are going to be buying cars 15 years from now. Looking at the way Nike looks at product development to meet those needs, I think we can learn something from that."