Saturn's Newest Big Wheel

Cynthia Trudell's credentials: leadership experience in labor relations and manufacturing. But can she drive Saturn's future?

The management challenge: leverage the brand's market strengths with new products while continuing to build the corporation's unique spirit of teamwork with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and retailers. When Cynthia M. Trudell was named a General Motors Corp. vice president and Saturn Corp.'s chairman and president Jan. 1, the headlines focused more on her gender than the qualifications she brings to the GM subsidiary. True, she is said to be the first to have penetrated the auto industry's almost legendary "glass ceiling" to lead an automaker. (The women who serve as general managers at Pontiac and Oldsmobile have narrower responsibilities, primarily focused on brand management.) But GM is betting on a greater distinction -- the factory-management skills and labor-relations experience she brings to the top of Saturn. Few auto leaders, regardless of gender, can say as she does, "I started on the shop floor." That was in 1979 when she began her career with Ford Motor Co. in Windsor, Ont., as a chemical process engineer involved in engine-manufacturing operations and environmental issues. "In those days we were just getting the hazardous-materials programs together. I had just completed my doctorate [physical chemistry, University of Windsor] and before working toward a professorship I wanted to get some experience in industry." In 1981 she moved to GM where she continued to strengthen her credentials in manufacturing. "They offered me a position as a senior process-engineering manager." Later she was named superintendent of manufacturing. Then in 1983 she became manufacturing-engineering manager at the Willow Run Transmission complex in Ypsilanti, Mich., and in 1989 operations manager, responsible for the manufacture and assembly of transmission components. In 1990 Trudell joined Powertrain Advanced Manufacturing Systems as chief engineer in charge of process technologies, artificial-intelligence systems, and manufacturing-system architecture for future engine and transmission products. In 1992 she was appointed site manager at the engine and foundry operations in St. Catharines, Ont. The next step in 1995 was becoming plant manager of the Wilmington Assembly Center in Wilmington, Del., a facility that will become the dedicated Saturn assembly plant for the new, midsized L-Series models, a four-door sedan and a wagon. They will join the lineup this year, essentially doubling the business, says Trudell predecessor Don Hudler, who retired after 43 years with GM and Saturn to become the CEO of Saturn Retail Enterprises of Charlotte, a separate company that will own and operate a chunk of the carmaker's retail facilities. Immediately before coming to Saturn, Trudell was president of IBC Vehicles, a wholly owned GM operation in Luton, England, that produces the Frontera four-wheel-drive vehicle. IBC was initially formed in partnership with Isuzu Motors Ltd. of Japan in 1987, and her experience there will play an important part in the anticipated Saturn sport-utility vehicle, says David E. Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. As vital as her accumulation of manufacturing know-how is, the key to the future success of Saturn may well be in labor-management relations. On that issue she has won the confidence of the GM executive she reports to. "She has formulated strong partnerships with the unions she has worked with throughout her career," notes Donald E. Hackworth, GM senior vice president and group executive, North American Car Group. At the Luton facility, Trudell successfully worked with five unions. That capability likely will be put to the test again. In February Saturn employees voted out all of the UAW's local leaders who have been involved with Saturn's labor-management progress. Replacing bargaining chairman Michael E. Bennett, a union leader at Saturn the last 12 years, is Robert Williams, a vice president of the local who has been described as a critic of Saturn's history of labor relations. Culturally, management and labor at Saturn have demonstrated the power of partnership at the Spring Hill, Tenn., manufacturing complex. Together, in a $1.9 billion GM experiment billed as a small-car showdown with the Japanese, they have achieved success in a variety of ways. Customer loyalty is one. A 1998 Sales Satisfaction Index Study by J.D. Power & Associates shows Saturn continues to rank No. 1 in sales satisfaction. Studies indicate that more than 70% of sales are to buyers who haven't bought other GM vehicles, showing that Saturn's marketing approach brings in the kinds of buyers -- including young professional women -- that other parts of GM have difficulty reaching. Another measure of success is in the effectiveness of the manufacturing culture and processes such as teamwork. The experiment has worked so well that some of the accumulated knowledge, technology, and experience is being applied to other parts of GM, fulfilling the original strategy. Despite brand loyalty and manufacturing teamwork breakthroughs, Saturn hasn't had many new models. That's what Trudell positions as the most challenging aspect of her new assignment: "Basically, as you know, Saturn has had only one main product [platform] in its portfolio. Since 1994 we have been building the reputation. If I were to summarize [the challenge], I would have to say that the most challenging and to me the most exciting aspect of my new duties is to properly -- with the whole Saturn team -- manage the growth that we're about to embark upon." Unfortunately, as the 1990s unfolded, that one-platform array of coupes, sedans, and station wagons was competing in the toughest part of the market -- small cars. In the last two years, sales activity in the small-car market plunged 20% as customers turned their attention to larger cars and sport-utility vehicles and gasoline prices dipped so low that bottled water was more expensive by comparison. Despite its fans, Saturn wasn't totally immune -- its sales slumped 10% in 1997 and continued to slide in 1998. To start a reversal of its fortunes, Saturn's 1999 lineup extends its original platform with an innovative SC2 three-door coupe -- the first automotive implementation of the concept since it first appeared on pickups in 1996. Saturn's implementation of the idea on the coupe differs by placing the extra door on the driver's side. Since market data show a majority of single owners, that placement presumably is intended to help the driver stow parcels and bags. Of course, the feature could also appeal to couples with small children or other occasional rear-seat passengers. (Sales reported for February show the three-door model increasing coupe sales 39% over a year earlier. Overall Saturn sales slipped, contrasting with a 43% increase in GM's midsized vehicles.) The new L Series represents a more ambitious strategy to grow the business. By providing customers with a migration path to larger, more luxurious vehicles, Saturn sees a potential for doubling sales. (Trudell says it will be introduced in the latter part of the third quarter.) But it also has the potential of testing Trudell's labor-relations skills. Unlike the original platform, the L Series is derived from the German-built Opel Vectra, a platform GM's European subsidiary introduced in 1996. While the design includes the distinctive plastic body panels that customers identify with the brand, some union members are sensitive to it being the first Saturn with origins outside the company. Unlike all previous Saturns, it will be produced at a GM factory in Wilmington, Del. That leaves Trudell with the challenge of convincing the rank and file that Saturn's uniqueness and independence are not being challenged or diminished by its parent. Trudell is undaunted. What she prizes from her experiences of managing plants in Canada, the U.S., and England is a strong labor perspective. "They have truly taught me that not only are labor relations country independent, success is really all about relationships," she says. "It's all about respecting the reason for why all the parties are there and finding ways that they can all really contribute. I know that sounds like fluffy words but, honest-to-God, I believe it. It worked for me, and the real test was when I was in England. My organization had five different unions, and we used to sit around the table to decide on the directions or issues that we were dealing with." She ascribes her past success in labor relations to a philosophy of first remembering that union officials are elected while management is appointed. "When you understand that, you never put your union counterparts in a difficult situation," she says. "Secondly, remember that both parties really do have something very much in common; namely, making the business successful and keeping employment for the community. That's been my approach, and it has held true throughout all three countries. "The next issue is one's integrity. When you make a commitment, you need to carefully consider honoring it if you are serious about trust. That means eliminating the five-second decision. Carefully think things through and establish a really good dialogue to build the relationship. You can't have a meeting every two months and think that you're building a relationship. Success requires constant interaction." She also cautions that short-term thinking in labor relations means paying a tremendous penalty long-term. The management challenge: leverage the brand's market strengths with new products while continuing to build the corporation's unique spirit of teamwork with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and retailers. When Cynthia M. Trudell was named a General Motors Corp. vice president and Saturn Corp.'s chairman and president Jan. 1, the headlines focused more on her gender than the qualifications she brings to the GM subsidiary. True, she is said to be the first to have penetrated the auto industry's almost legendary "glass ceiling" to lead an automaker. (The women who serve as general managers at Pontiac and Oldsmobile have narrower responsibilities, primarily focused on brand management.) But GM is betting on a greater distinction -- the factory-management skills and labor-relations experience she brings to the top of Saturn. Few auto leaders, regardless of gender, can say as she does, "I started on the shop floor." That was in 1979 when she began her career with Ford Motor Co. in Windsor, Ont., as a chemical process engineer involved in engine-manufacturing operations and environmental issues. "In those days we were just getting the hazardous-materials programs together. I had just completed my doctorate [physical chemistry, University of Windsor] and before working toward a professorship I wanted to get some experience in industry." In 1981 she moved to GM where she continued to strengthen her credentials in manufacturing. "They offered me a position as a senior process-engineering manager." Later she was named superintendent of manufacturing. Then in 1983 she became manufacturing-engineering manager at the Willow Run Transmission complex in Ypsilanti, Mich., and in 1989 operations manager, responsible for the manufacture and assembly of transmission components. In 1990 Trudell joined Powertrain Advanced Manufacturing Systems as chief engineer in charge of process technologies, artificial-intelligence systems, and manufacturing-system architecture for future engine and transmission products. In 1992 she was appointed site manager at the engine and foundry operations in St. Catharines, Ont. The next step in 1995 was becoming plant manager of the Wilmington Assembly Center in Wilmington, Del., a facility that will become the dedicated Saturn assembly plant for the new, midsized L-Series models, a four-door sedan and a wagon. They will join the lineup this year, essentially doubling the business, says Trudell predecessor Don Hudler, who retired after 43 years with GM and Saturn to become the CEO of Saturn Retail Enterprises of Charlotte, a separate company that will own and operate a chunk of the carmaker's retail facilities. Immediately before coming to Saturn, Trudell was president of IBC Vehicles, a wholly owned GM operation in Luton, England, that produces the Frontera four-wheel-drive vehicle. IBC was initially formed in partnership with Isuzu Motors Ltd. of Japan in 1987, and her experience there will play an important part in the anticipated Saturn sport-utility vehicle, says David E. Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. As vital as her accumulation of manufacturing know-how is, the key to the future success of Saturn may well be in labor-management relations. On that issue she has won the confidence of the GM executive she reports to. "She has formulated strong partnerships with the unions she has worked with throughout her career," notes Donald E. Hackworth, GM senior vice president and group executive, North American Car Group. At the Luton facility, Trudell successfully worked with five unions. That capability likely will be put to the test again. In February Saturn employees voted out all of the UAW's local leaders who have been involved with Saturn's labor-management progress. Replacing bargaining chairman Michael E. Bennett, a union leader at Saturn the last 12 years, is Robert Williams, a vice president of the local who has been described as a critic of Saturn's history of labor relations. Culturally, management and labor at Saturn have demonstrated the power of partnership at the Spring Hill, Tenn., manufacturing complex. Together, in a $1.9 billion GM experiment billed as a small-car showdown with the Japanese, they have achieved success in a variety of ways. Customer loyalty is one. A 1998 Sales Satisfaction Index Study by J.D. Power & Associates shows Saturn continues to rank No. 1 in sales satisfaction. Studies indicate that more than 70% of sales are to buyers who haven't bought other GM vehicles, showing that Saturn's marketing approach brings in the kinds of buyers -- including young professional women -- that other parts of GM have difficulty reaching. Another measure of success is in the effectiveness of the manufacturing culture and processes such as teamwork. The experiment has worked so well that some of the accumulated knowledge, technology, and experience is being applied to other parts of GM, fulfilling the original strategy. Despite brand loyalty and manufacturing teamwork breakthroughs, Saturn hasn't had many new models. That's what Trudell positions as the most challenging aspect of her new assignment: "Basically, as you know, Saturn has had only one main product [platform] in its portfolio. Since 1994 we have been building the reputation. If I were to summarize [the challenge], I would have to say that the most challenging and to me the most exciting aspect of my new duties is to properly -- with the whole Saturn team -- manage the growth that we're about to embark upon." Unfortunately, as the 1990s unfolded, that one-platform array of coupes, sedans, and station wagons was competing in the toughest part of the market -- small cars. In the last two years, sales activity in the small-car market plunged 20% as customers turned their attention to larger cars and sport-utility vehicles and gasoline prices dipped so low that bottled water was more expensive by comparison. Despite its fans, Saturn wasn't totally immune -- its sales slumped 10% in 1997 and continued to slide in 1998. To start a reversal of its fortunes, Saturn's 1999 lineup extends its original platform with an innovative SC2 three-door coupe -- the first automotive implementation of the concept since it first appeared on pickups in 1996. Saturn's implementation of the idea on the coupe differs by placing the extra door on the driver's side. Since market data show a majority of single owners, that placement presumably is intended to help the driver stow parcels and bags. Of course, the feature could also appeal to couples with small children or other occasional rear-seat passengers. (Sales reported for February show the three-door model increasing coupe sales 39% over a year earlier. Overall Saturn sales slipped, contrasting with a 43% increase in GM's midsized vehicles.) The new L Series represents a more ambitious strategy to grow the business. By providing customers with a migration path to larger, more luxurious vehicles, Saturn sees a potential for doubling sales. (Trudell says it will be introduced in the latter part of the third quarter.) But it also has the potential of testing Trudell's labor-relations skills. Unlike the original platform, the L Series is derived from the German-built Opel Vectra, a platform GM's European subsidiary introduced in 1996. While the design includes the distinctive plastic body panels that customers identify with the brand, some union members are sensitive to it being the first Saturn with origins outside the company. Unlike all previous Saturns, it will be produced at a GM factory in Wilmington, Del. That leaves Trudell with the challenge of convincing the rank and file that Saturn's uniqueness and independence are not being challenged or diminished by its parent. Trudell is undaunted. What she prizes from her experiences of managing plants in Canada, the U.S., and England is a strong labor perspective. "They have truly taught me that not only are labor relations country independent, success is really all about relationships," she says. "It's all about respecting the reason for why all the parties are there and finding ways that they can all really contribute. I know that sounds like fluffy words but, honest-to-God, I believe it. It worked for me, and the real test was when I was in England. My organization had five different unions, and we used to sit around the table to decide on the directions or issues that we were dealing with." She ascribes her past success in labor relations to a philosophy of first remembering that union officials are elected while management is appointed. "When you understand that, you never put your union counterparts in a difficult situation," she says. "Secondly, remember that both parties really do have something very much in common; namely, making the business successful and keeping employment for the community. That's been my approach, and it has held true throughout all three countries. "The next issue is one's integrity. When you make a commitment, you need to carefully consider honoring it if you are serious about trust. That means eliminating the five-second decision. Carefully think things through and establish a really good dialogue to build the relationship. You can't have a meeting every two months and think that you're building a relationship. Success requires constant interaction." She also cautions that short-term thinking in labor relations means paying a tremendous penalty long-term. "The most common failure in labor relations occurs when a policy is changed or created without any thought of how to operationalize it. Not only does it risk becoming unmanageable for either or both parties, but the results often will become seen as unfair and distrust will be the legacy." She sums up her responsibilities as being about two things -- strategy formulation, and challenging, encouraging, and helping a group of people to implement it.


Dates In Saturn History
June 15, 1982 -- Alex C. Mair, then vice president of what is now GM's Advanced Engineering Staff, summons engineers Joe Joseph and Tom Ankeny to his office to discuss a new innovative "small-car project." October 1983 -- Donald F. Ephlin, vice president and director of the UAW General Motors Dept., and Alfred A. Warren Jr., vice president of GM's industrial-relations staff, agree to pursue the concept of a GM-UAW Study Center to explore new approaches to building small cars in the U.S. Nov. 3, 1983 -- Saturn project announced publicly by GM Chairman Roger B. Smith and President F. James McDonald. Sept. 15, 1984 -- First Saturn demonstration vehicle completed for evaluation. Jan. 26, 1985 -- Joseph J. Sanchez, Saturn president, dies. Feb. 4, 1985 -- William E. Hoglund appointed new Saturn president. Feb. 1, 1986 -- First Saturn team members move onto Spring Hill site. Feb. 3, 1986 -- Richard G. (Skip) LeFauve named president. Dec. 7, 1987 -- GM board approves $1.9 billion for Saturn plant construction, equipment, and tooling. Feb. 1, 1988 -- Local 1853 chartered. Mar. 13, 1990 -- First Saturn retail facility groundbreaking in Memphis. Oct. 25, 1990 -- First saleable vehicles available at Saturn retailers. Sept. 16, 1993 -- Saturn produces its 500,000th car. June 23-25, 1994 -- 44,000 Saturn owners and their families attend the Saturn homecoming at Spring Hill. With retailers sponsoring regional events, one of every six customers participates. Aug. 8, 1995 -- Donald W. Hudler becomes president. His predecessor, Richard LeFauve, becomes chairman. Mar. 15, 1997 -- A black-gold SC2 Coupe is the first Saturn right-hand-drive vehicle to be unloaded at the port of Toyohashi, Japan. Jan. 1, 1999 -- Cynthia M. Trudell, appointed chairman and president of Saturn Corp. and a vice president of GM. Hudler retires to become CEO of a new dealer-franchise company. Saturn is a minority shareholder.
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