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Donald Hudler played a key role in making Saturn a rousing marketing success. Now he's getting the keys to steer Saturn through a risky expansion designed to make the General Motors Corp. unit a financial success.

GM last week appointed Mr. Hudler president of Saturn Corp., succeeding Richard "Skip" LeFauve, who takes the new post of chairman.

Mr. LeFauve, remaining group executive in charge of GM's small car group, will oversee Saturn's strategic direction. Mr. Hudler takes over operations, including manufacturing and labor relations as well as sales, service and marketing. Mr. Hudler also was elected a GM VP.

The promotion of Mr. Hudler underscores the crucial role marketing has played at Saturn, the import-fighting unit that brought out its first models in 1990.

As Saturn VP in charge of sales, service and marketing since 1987, Mr. Hudler oversaw creation of the customer-friendly philosophy that set Saturn apart from other high-volume car marketers.

Mr. Hudler also generated innovative marketing ideas such as the Saturn Homecoming, the 1994 festival that drew 20,000 Saturn owners and their families to the company's plant in Spring Hill, Tenn.

While Saturn sales are approaching 300,000 units a year with just a basic small coupe, sedan and wagon, the unit hasn't begun to pay back GM's $5 billion initial investment.

To expand, Saturn is expected to develop new products in tandem with GM's Adam Opel in Europe. Saturn also is in line to distribute GM's electric car, being developed to meet a 1998 California clean-air mandate.

Don't look for any big changes in the warm, folksy Saturn advertising created by Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco.

"One reason for our success has been the consistency of messages. To try to shift directions not only would be foolhardy, but it wouldn't get anywhere considering the involvement of Riney and our retailers," Mr. Hudler said.

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