Autosavant Interviews Mark Reuss, President, GM North America

By Chris Haak

On the sidelines of the 2011 New York International Auto Show, I had the opportunity to sit down for a brief interview with Mark Reuss, the president of GM North America.  Going into the interview, I knew a bit about Reuss’ background; he’s famously the son of former GM president Lloyd Reuss, and he’s an engineer by training (having led engineering efforts in GM’s large luxury vehicles and created the GM Performance Division that spawned the likes of the V-series Cadillacs).  He also served a stint in GM’s Asia-Pacific region, leading the company’s operations in Australia and New Zealand and serving as Holden’s managing director for about two years.

My conversation with him occurred just a few hours after he had revealed the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu and Malibu Eco to the US media.  Although, like all new-vehicle press conferences, the Malibu reveal was scripted and teleprompter-driven, Reuss was calm and at-ease when taking questions.  His easy conversational style, free of management-speak buzzwords like “synergy” and “efficiency,” was refreshing to hear from a senior person.  He came across as an intelligent guy who knows what needs to be done to move GM forward as the company heads toward General Motors Company’s second anniversary this summer.

GM’s trip through bankruptcy, though politically unpopular, caused a fundamental change in the way the company does business.  Said Reuss

My whole career, every year, you were given an assignment to either restructure, reorganize, reduce, or exit.  And so we were a structural cost-based company – to sustain our manufacturing footprint with structural cost reductions.  So, if you have that and you have too many brands, you really can’t make very good products.

And so now we’re a revenue generation based company.  That’s a pretty profound statement when you think about that on a daily basis of when I go to work, and what I work on.  It’s pretty refreshing.

Reuss acknowledged, however, that all is not completely rosy at this point with GM.

There’s hatred of this company, and I’m very realistic about that.  There’s people that don’t agree with the assistance the government gave to us.  There’s people who don’t trust the company because of prior customer experiences with the company.  I see it every day.

I give him a lot of credit, though, for addressing the company’s “haters” head-on.  He continues

As many of those things [letters, hate mail] that get sent to me, I deal with it.  If someone takes the time to write to me, I will deal with it.  I’ll write them back, I’ll call them up.  I’ll try and solve the problem or the reason why they hate us.  If I can’t do it, then I can’t do it, but it’s not unintended.

One general observation I’ve noted previously on the first day of the auto show in New York; indeed, of other auto shows as well, was that the press conferences lacked the drama and showmanship that we’ve seen in years past.  According to Reuss, that is intentional, at least at GM.  Reading between the lines, it’s not that they can’t afford to stage “parlor tricks” (his words), it’s that they want to focus on the core fundamentals of the car.  The cars, in large part, will speak for themselves.  There’s no longer a need for an outsize personality like Bob Lutz to hype a new car.

This low-key attitude, which flies in the face of auto-show traditions over the past decade or two, is reflective perhaps of the new realities of the global economy, where every dollar is precious; every resource is something to be conserved.  I suppose that the days of longhorn cattle copulating in the streets of Detroit during the Ram pickup launch are but a distant memory.

Reuss went on to confirm that another GM bad habit was being put to rest:  the exposure of production cars, or near-production cars, two years ahead of their on-sale date.  He cited the 2013 Malibu as an example of the situation going forward; the car will be at dealers in less than a year, in both of the versions shown in New York.  When I asked if he was referring to the likes of the Camaro concept, which debuted in January 2006, he confirmed that showing a car in early 2006 that turns into a 2010 model-year vehicle was problematic.  “It’s this goofy integrity game we play with the public and the media,” he said.  “We’re just not gonna do that anymore.”

He’s a car guy at heart; he cited the Cadillac CTS-V coupe as his favorite car developed under his watch (and drives one himself), but all of the talk about fuel economy and low-key launches left me concerned whether the Malibu – currently available with an optional 3.6 liter V6 – would see a sport variant that improves upon the base car’s 2.5 liter four cylinder.  Mark Reuss’ response was

We may, we may not.  I think we have to get out there with the base car and the Eco model.  We did the same thing with the Cruze.  What we don’t want to do is go out there and overpopulate something, and overdo it.  We have not had a lot of credibility, particularly at the small car part of the market.

Rather than a performance Malibu or performance Cruze, the plan is to let the Sonic subcompact carry the performance banner on the mainstream end of the lineup.  This is why the Cruze Eco’s 42 mile per gallon EPA highway rating is likely to surpass the smaller, lighter Sonic’s “around 40” number.  The final drive ratios are different, and the cars are intended to serve different markets.

We’re not gonna do everything in every one of these car lines and segments for everybody.  That’s what we used to do.  There’s a ton of engineering for incremental sales.  You gotta be careful with that.

I think we also have an opportunity relative to Ford because, if you look at the Ford Fiesta and the Ford Focus versus Sonic and Cruze and Chevrolet, Fiesta and Focus are big and bigger.  Very similar design language, very similar positioning.  I think that’s really dangerous.  I’d rather separate Sonic and Cruze and Malibu on a base car approach positioning basis.  That’s why we’re launching this car with the Eco model first.  That’s a big, big difference.

So, does the GM approach toward its small and midsize cars leave an opportunity to extend the lineup a few years down the road to maintain interest?

Totally.  You can always do those.  But that’s not the core of what we need to make the business out of, nor should it be.

Could that last quote mean that Mark Reuss the manager has killed Mark Reuss the car guy?  It’s probably more complex than that.  Reuss is still fairly young, at 47 years old, and is a potential future GM CEO.  His boss, Dan Akerson, is 62 years old and won’t work at the company forever.  (If he follows the pattern set by Wagoner, Henderson, and Whitacre, he won’t work at the company two years).  Shareholders couldn’t care less how exciting a potential halo car might be, but want the company to generate as much revenue as possible, at the lowest cost possible, and so they want a future CEO who makes the right business decisions, not ones based on emotion.

On an emotional level though, my perception of Reuss the manager is not to say that he isn’t pleased with the outcome of his efforts to continue local vehicle production in Australia.  GM Holden’s production had been focused almost exclusively on popular large cars such as the Commodore and Statesman. When fuel prices rose precipitously, demand for those types of cars fell.  The demise of Pontiac (and therefore the Australia-soured G8 with it) meant that Holden production was in serious jeopardy.

One part of the plan to save Holden production was to ink an export deal to ship Chevrolet Caprice PPVs (Police Patrol Vehicles) to the US for law enforcement use.  For US-based folks, the Caprice is basically a longer wheelbase version of the car they might recognize as the G8, but is really a Holden Statesman.

The second part of the plan was to secure local Cruze production in Australia.  In prior years, C-segment cars had been sourced from either South Korea (for inexpensive, inferior Daewoo-based products) or from Europe (for expensive, slow-selling ones).  Local Cruze production now means better cars and more attractive pricing; it’s easier to sell a lot of Cruzes than it is to sell a lot of rear wheel drive V8 and V6 cars.

When he first answered the “which GM car developed under your leadership are you most proud of” question, his first answer was the CTS-V coupe.  But then he quickly threw in that he was proud to have secured local Cruze production, because he clearly feels an attachment to Australia from his time managing Holden.

Will Reuss’ position at the top of GM North America’s org chart, coupled with his affinity for Holden, mean that we may someday see a spiritual successor to the G8 with a Chevrolet badge, a large rear wheel drive performance sedan?  He couldn’t discuss future product, of course, but did note

It’s always a possibility.  We look at that stuff like every week, we really do.  The world changes so quickly that you never wanna be blind to how fast that changes and how you react to it.

So three months ago, before gas prices spiked, might such a car have had better odds of seeing the light of day?

Exactly.  That’s my point.  You’re seeing the world change again.  We’re gonna still have a lot of those big episodes around the world.

GM’s position as a global company carries with it unique risks, not the least of which are supply-chain concerns.  These concerns were highlighted in recent weeks by Japanese automakers, who have all either halted or dramatically slowed production due to the earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan.  GM’s only impact to date was that it had to close its Shreveport, Louisiana midsize truck plant for a week in late March.  At the time, the company wouldn’t say what part was causing the shortage.  However, Mark Reuss shared a bit more detail about what part it was and why Shreveport was closed:

We shut down our Shreveport mid-truck plant for a week because we reallocated ECMs to CAMI so that we could keep our Terrain and Equinox production going.  We brought the plant up a week later.

GM seemingly can’t build enough Equinox and Terrain crossovers to satisfy demand, despite taking over the entire CAMI plant from former partner Suzuki, shipping unfinished bodies to the company’s Oshawa plant for final assembly, and finally announcing the upcoming Mexico-built Chevrolet Captiva for fleets only to allow the company to direct as much Equinox/Terrain production to retail customers.

Contrast that with the Colorado/Canyon midsize pickup twins.  The unloved duo is going out of production as soon as their plant is shuttered, and may or may not be replaced.  Inventories are typically fairly high for the trucks, and they aren’t strong sellers.  It makes perfect sense to divert parts from less-popular vehicles to those in high demand.

As the interview drew to a close, Reuss was asked what message he wanted to convey from GM coming out of the New York show.

We are going to be a serious, full-line automaker, and I think the evidence is in the Cruze on the road, and I think the future evidence is in the Malibu, and in the Eco piece of the Malibu, where we return with integrity, high value, style, and great operating cost.  I’m not sure we’ve had that for a long time with Chevrolet in the United States…I think these cars that we’re bringing out are really, really good, and this is just the next step.

So what did we learn from Mark Reuss?  GM will be taking a more disciplined approach toward new-vehicle introductions, with less pomp (and not as early) and a focus on the specific message that the company wants to communicate about a particular car.  We got no real news on the prospects of a large rear wheel drive performance sedan (though it’s perhaps less likely now than before the Libya crisis, thanks to oil and gasoline prices), and we may or may not see sporty variants of the Cruze and Malibu – but will see sport-oriented Sonics.

Reuss is clearly pleased about now having the opportunity to focus on building cars that people will buy, rather than keeping the plants humming as much as possible to support crushing structural costs that sunk Old GM.  He struck me as a guy who likes to come to work every day, and a guy who’s not afraid to respond to criticism (or “hate,” in his words), making a genuine effort to do the right thing.  One gets the sense after speaking with him that GM would have been in a much healthier state over the past few decades if it had more managers with Mark Reuss’ attitude toward addressing problems and dealing with customers.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. Excellent interview; kudos to the reporter. It interesting to see Reuss go back and forth between his two masters – cost-profit and engineering-styling. The cars have to make money but if they’re not engineered weel and don’t look good, they won’t sell enough, no matter what the cost.

  2. [quote=Reuss]There’s hatred of this company, and I’m very realistic about that. There’s people that don’t agree with the assistance the government gave to us. There’s people who don’t trust the company because of prior customer experiences with the company. I see it every day.[/quote]

    Count me in now as one of the lifetime GM owners who have defected to the competition.

    Simply put, GM doesn’t make a car I want. It comes close, but my standards are higher than what GM is willing/able/capable of putting on the road. The last dealings I had with local San Francisco Bay Area Cadillac dealerships were appalling. Why would I ever want to return to GM after such treatment. Especially when the competition has better dealership and better trained personnel?

    I resent GM for many things. I resent them for still being around. They should be a dead company. Its leadership had its collective head up its ass, and I think the jury is still out on its current leadership. Ford is the American car company to look up to. They did it right. They made the necessary cuts in order to survive. GM did the same cuts — but only with a gun to its head. GM is the prime example of what NOT to do in business. I’m still not convinced GM is doing enough still.

    But, I see GM is trying. And trying hard. But for cars I’m interested in — 1) Premium convertible (doesn’t exist at GM), 2) City car (doesn’t exist at GM), 3) Premium mid-sizer (doesn’t exist at GM), 4) Premium compact/mid CUV (SRX = Hell to the NO) — GM just doesn’t provide what I need. And that’s too bad.

    At times, I think GM is still merely benchmarking what the competition is TODAY. Except, by the time they get their product out the door (they’re still maddeningly slow to market), the competition has moved on, leaving GM behind. Again. GM needs quantum leaps to keep its head up. Malibu seems to be that car. Except the exterior design is 3 years old.

    Oh well. I’ll sit on the sidelines, watching GM. But for now, Mercedes, Fiat, and Land Rover have more compelling product for me.

  3. Nice interview!

    It is very puzzling to me the extreme sustaining negative feeling that some people have toward GM (both as a company and for its products). We all recall Hyundai used to make awful cars. But as soon as they started to make descent cars, everything was forgotten and people lined up in its dealers. GM does make descent cars these days too. So, why not give them a chance too.

    If the hatred is due to the company accepting money from he government, there are many other enterprises that fully or occasionally get government money. In the case of GM, I think the government is going to make money after it sells its GM stocks. That is not something that can be said about NASA, NIH, Boeing, Banks, and peanut subsidies.

    My point is that people should stop putting down GM at every opportunity and give them a chance as an equal contender in the global car marketplace.

  4. Mark Reuss rocks! Cool interview.

    Now we just need dual clutch or MCT transmissions for the c7 vette, ATS V and the Camaro ZL1.

  5. Thoroughly enjoyable to read.

  6. Good interview and I enjoyed reading it, and I hope to see Reuss higher up at GM in the future.

    He’s right about a lot of people having it in for GM, they do. After all those years it was so hip to trash GM about everything, I guess old habits die hard. Even if the company is a much different company with much different product and product quality now.

  7. the govt stepped in not to save GM but to save the UAW because if GM went to a conventual bankruptcy the unions were out. i bet the govt told the money people not to touch the GM bankruptcy so they could save the unions.

  8. Shareholders won’t get a dime if GM isn’t building the best cars and trucks on the road. Some of that does indeed involve the use of a little emotion.. Mark is no doubt trying to serve two masters as noted. I do however think he’s off to a good start. I don’t think they’ve trimmed the company far enough for maximum profits and marketshare of their three main brands.

    The GMC brand should have their trim levels split up between Chevrolet and Cadillac. Chevrolet can become higher quality and have better main brand status to compete with the likes of new Hyundai, Toyota and Ford. Cadillac won’t have to lose sales to GMC and lose profits, brand status and marketshare on top of it. Buick can take on the odds and ends in the GM product line. GM still has two truck and van lines building the same basic thing. They have 3 large suv lines building the same basic thing. They have 4 CUV lines building the same basic thing. Trim it down…

  9. I shared this interview with the members of the GM Inside News forum, and today Mark Reuss himself responded. Below is exactly what he had to say there:

    “Well–here I am and yep I read all of this regularly. I use the site often because it is a very efficient way to get data on how we are doing and what people think of us. I have been with the company from day 1–from engineering engine valvetrains to programming robots in a plant, to where I am now. I saw what was done, and I here to fix it and make it right with the rest of the GM team. I am passionate to make it right–we were given a second chance and we cannot / will not allow anything but success. I cannot change what happened in the past–I know the failure on many fronts of a company focussed only on structural cost. People in our company that cannot do the right thing because we thrift service and products. Nothing is more painful for the customer (except maybe the employees in the company watching it). I am also a realist. This is did not happen in one year–but rather over many years. There are no silver bullets–we are attacking this every day–dealer by dealer and customer by customer. I worked in a dealer in Ct last week–shadowed every department and took it all in as a trainee. I took all of this back to my staff and we now are embarking on a new journey of “supporting the operator” –to take a page from manufacturing–so we must make the jobs of our dealers (customers) and our paying customers–much easier and less complex–and therefore higher quality. It is a journey for many years–started by things we can do today immediately. Our field staff needs to feel empowerment again–and be able to step in and solve the issue. These are great people who have been beaten down and need to again feel they can do what is right for the customer. On the product front–we all want more–faster–BUT do not forget the BK. We delayed, cancelled, and took things out. And now we are pulling forward and putting back in cars and trucks. NOT if quality is in question. The core of satisfaction must remain long term quality and reliability–this is the key to retaining customers willing to give us another try. We delivered a new Regal to a lady who had not been in a GM car since 1978!! We MUST satisfy her both in product and services over the long haul and I know we will. Our dealers are the heros for sticking with us–and a lot who did not want to continue are no longer around as well–so I feel decent about our footprint and the energy to be successful in this second chance we have. Day by day, customer by customer, product by product. With a humble, customer focus. So, thanks for the comments–good and bad–they focus me for my job.



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