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General Motors Corp. is studying a consolidation of its U.S. field staff, which could pave the way for more mergers of its vehicle marketing divisions, according to executives close to the carmaker.

Currently, each GM division has separate field staffs advising dealers on sales, service and marketing in their regions. GM may replace that with a single field staff overseeing all brands in their respective markets.

"It makes sense to have someone managing a market area vs. a single brand," said an executive close to GM who asked not to be named. "When they do [field restructuring], there will probably be some reorganization of the divisions. What difference would it make to consumers to merge divisions, because they wouldn't know the difference -- like Pontiac-GMC."


When GM consolidated its Pontiac and GMC truck divisions in 1996, it combined the field -- or zone -- staff, now handling both brands. Each brand, however, has separate ad agencies and divisional ad managers.

GM said it's too early to discuss plans, calling them speculative.

"We're looking at a lot of things, but we're not in a position to talk about them," said James Farmer, group director of public relations and communications at GM's North American Operations. He works directly for Ron Zarrella, group VP-sales, service and marketing, to whom the field group ultimately reports.

Talk also is starting to swirl that GM plans to combine other divisions, including its Saturn Corp. and Saab Cars USA subsidiaries, the executives said. There's also renewed talk that GM would merge Oldsmobile and Saturn, which GM has continually denied.

Combining divisions could get rid of a lot of redundancy in support staff, one of the executives said.

Mr. Farmer said GM divisions have a total of 5,100 people in field offices across the U.S. By brand, staffers oversee local sales, service and marketing, along with warranty programs by both division and corporate.


Like other carmakers, GM has been cutting global expenses. Chairman-CEO John "Jack" Smith has set ambitious global cost-cutting goals of $4 billion in 1998, after trimming $3.5 billion in expenses last year. GM said it cut $1.2 billion in the first quarter of '98, about half in North America.

"Jack asked us to be leaner and faster to market and develop a process," said Mr. Farmer. "But there's 19 chefs in the kitchen, and it's so far from being soup they're still buying vegetables at the store."

Mr. Farmer said "it's natural for someone to think of hooking up Saturn to help Saab" in the U.S., when you consider that Saab USA President Joel Manby and VP-Sales and Retail Development John Orth came from Saturn.

Although Saturn dealerships are stand-alone stores in the U.S., Saab is paired with Saturn in Canada.

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