When General Motors chief executive Charles Erwin Wilson was seeking Senate approval as President Eisenhower’s nominee for US defence secretary, he reluctantly agreed to sell his GM stockholdings to avoid a conflict of interest.
He said he honestly hadn’t foreseen any problem “because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”
That famous quote has since been twisted to illustrate the patronising attitudes of wealthy businessmen as well as raise concerns about the close ties between big business and government.
Today, General Motors, GM or The General, as it’s also known, is seen as a fading force in the global motor vehicle industry, with news this week it is closing one of its three plants in South Korea.
It has also withdrawn from Russia, India and other emerging markets, as well as selling its European manufacturing plants to France’s Peugeot.
But the president of General Motors International, Barry Engle, has a much different slant on the company, which is focused on building profits in its major markets of the US and China.
That is proving a successful strategy with its latest quarter producing an operating profit of $US2.9 billion and margins of 10%, the highest since its bankruptcy nearly a decade ago. Global earnings were $US3.1 billion, up 19%.
Mr Engle flew in for the Commodore launch in Auckland and outlined the company’s global transformation.
“We have chosen to get rid of businesses where we didn’t see a path to make money,” he told NBR. “My mandate is to profitably grow the ones that are left.” That includes Australia and New Zealand, where the Holden Commodore badge is primarily used.
“We’re here to stay. We have a phenomenal brand that has had tremendous emotional connection with customers over four decades.” (Holdens go back even further to 1948.)
Barry Engle, head of GM International, about to unveil the new Holden Commodore.
GM’s future corporate vision is based on “zero collisions, zero congestion and zero emissions“ to reflect its commitment to be a global leader in electric vehicles (EVs) and internet-based connectivity.
“More and more vehicles will be electrified, some will be autonomous and loaded with the latest in safety equipment. The landscape is evolving quickly and we are ready to deploy fully-autonomous vehicles as early as next year.”
Mr Engle recently tested the vehicle himself in San Francisco where it is being developed. It has no steering wheels, pedals or manual controls,
“I’ve seen the future, it’s amazing and it’s very close. This personal mobility transition is happening.”
In the US, where GM outsells Tesla in EVs, 20 new all-electric models will be released by 2023.
Autonomous vehicles require an internet-based infrastructure and GM is already preparing for this through its OnStar app for smartphones. This will be introduced in all Holden vehicles sold next year in New Zealand.
“Our customers will be able to manage their Holdens remotely,” Mr Engle says. “You will be able to lock or unlock it or even start the ignition wherever you are.”
OnStar is linked to emergency services and can be used to locate or disable vehicles if they are stolen.
“It even acts as a wi-fi hotspot so drivers and passengers will always be able to connect.”
But Mr Engle warns the shift to these self-driving vehicles will not necessarily occur everywhere.
“While these changes are transformational, and we will make great strides over the next five years, the reality is that there will be places in the world that will never have autonomous vehicles. If you’re living in a heavily congested urban area, you’ll be interested, but not if you live in the Australian outback.“
The Commodore liftback model.
Meanwhile, Holden New Zealand has embarked on its own transformational programme with a $50 million investment in its dealer network. This includes expanding the head office, distribution and warehouse facilities, upgrades of its 51 locations (including 16 new ones) and a training academy for the 1400 staff in the wider business.
Managing director Kristian Aquilina says the German-built Commodore (it is based on an original Opel and also sold as a Buick) will be followed by more new releases to take the tally up to 24 vehicles launched between 2015 and 2020.
This will expand the current range – which includes the smaller Spark, Barina and Astra cars through to the Mexican-made Equinox SUV – to one that also features the US-built Arcadia SUV.
“Who would have thought a company better known for its V8s and motorsport would be winning awards for its four-cylinder cars,” Mr Aquilina says.
Though the new Commodore still retains Australian engineering input for local road conditions, it breaks with the previous sedan to come in three body styles – liftback, sportwagon and tourer – and with several petrol and diesel-engined versions.
Other new features are the first diesel turbo, four-wheel drive options and nine-speed automatic transmission.
The pricing is also competitive, starting at $45,990, $4000 less than the comparable model it replaces. The top-priced Calais V6 Tourer is $65,990.
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