Posted by: David Welch on October 9, 2009
This is a bit of inside baseball. In Detroit circles, when a sales boss leaves a company, it’s big news. To the average reader, not so much. But the departure of General Motors sales vice president Mark LaNeve does have some interesting facets to it. Sources close to LaNeve say that he is headed to Allstate Insurance to become chief marketing officer. LaNeve spearheaded Cadillac’s resurgence with some pretty good marketing a few years ago. But I always saw his strengths being more on the sales side than marketing. This move should work for him. A big piece of marketing for insurance companies is managing the network of agents. Since LaNeve was well-liked by GM’s dealers, he will be a natural at that part of the job. LaNeve did not respond to emails and GM won’t comment on his next job. All State did not immediately respond to phone calls.
What’s more interesting is why LaNeve left. One obvious reason is that when GM emerged from bankruptcy and reorganized management, LaNeve lost control of marketing. He essentially had some stripes ripped from his sleeve. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz took over marketing. That made LaNeve the top sales executive, and only the top sales executive.
At GM, that’s a real pressure cooker. New Chairman Ed Whitacre wants to see market share top 20% next year. That doesn’t seem such a stretch since GM is at 19.5% right now. But consider that Hummer, Pontiac, Saab and Saturn are being sold or wound down. That means GM will lose some chunk of the 3 percent of the market that those brands command. Strip away even half of it and GM needs to grow by two points—or 200,000 vehicles in today’s car market—just to get there. If they don’t, the sales boss takes the fall. LaNeve may have figured that he had a target on his back, especially since it will take some time for the acrid stench of bankruptcy and government ownership to waft away from GM. Until GM finds a way to change the conversation about the company, its brands will be under that cloud.
Enter Susan Docherty. She’s the former Buick general manager who gets LaNeve’s old job. Docherty is ambitious, tough, bright and enthusiastic. But the job will be a very tough one. GM has some good products like the new GMC Terrain and Chevy Equinox crossovers suvs, the Chevy Camaro and Cadillac SRX suv and CTS wagon and coupe. But to boost the sales numbers, Docherty will have to find a way to lure consumers into showrooms. And since Whitacre wants it done profitably, she must do it without incentives. The good news is that GM’s new models are selling at better prices. So it can be done. But are there enough new models to get over 20%? That’s tough to see at the moment. Perhaps LaNeve couldn’t see that, either.