A Caution to GM’s New Chairman Whitacre: Corporate Image Facilities Don’t Sell Cars

September 15, 2009
GMImage by lacie babenco via Flickr

Over the past weekend I received a troubling phone call from a dealer friend of mine that had just returned from a General Motors meeting. The event was 1 of 10 meetings being conducted by General Motors across the country, ostensibly to pump up the spirits of the surviving dealer members of the new General Motors. Leaving the meeting, however, my dealer friend felt that the real purpose of the meeting was to clearly articulate the requirements of their new franchise agreement. Absent from the meeting were any references to the new General Motors 60 day money-back guarantee or the new television campaign’s personal assurance from GM’s new chairman. Rather, the meeting focused on GM’s new performance and conformance dealer requirements. That’s right, I said performance and conformance.

Apparently it’s not enough for the new General Motors for its dealers to perform- they must also conform. The dealers were told that they would be evaluated on an on-going basis according to a performance and conformance index.  According to my dictionary, another word for “conform” is “obey.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of the new conformance index is the requirement to build new facilities or, at a minimum, convert existing facilities to the new GM corporate image. The discussion with my dealer friend caused me to wonder whether GM is on the right track with its conformance index and, in particular, with its new facility requirements.

On a recent visit to a Chevrolet dealership 30 minutes outside of a major metro market in Ohio, I encountered a bright and shiny Chevrolet dealership conspicuously located in a rural setting of corn fields and farm houses. Approaching the premises, I was struck by the contrast between the imposing corporate facility and the gently rolling surrounding farms. It was immediately apparent that the long arm of the General Motors law had reached the Ohio countryside.

While entering the facility I tapped on the exterior column of the building and found that it was nothing more than a Dryvit façade. What I observed next however, struck me like a thunderbolt. Placed carefully behind the supporting Dryvit pillar, out of view, was a charcoal grill. It occurred to me that the charcoal grill represented something special. It stood as a symbol of the old genuine Chevrolet experience – where people from the community would come on a warm sunny day to browse inventory, eat hot dogs, catch up on the latest local gossip, and yes, buy or service a genuine GM vehicle. For me, the moment was like the twilight zone: not the present, not the past, but rather a time warp uncomfortably caught in the middle.

This experience stands in further contrast to another dealership visit I made while taking my son to college in Atlanta. I stopped at Adventure Chevrolet in Dolton, Georgia to visit my dealer friend Joe Kirby. I was so struck by the experience that I immediately wrote about it on my blog http://budurl.com/qbz8.  What was distinct about Kirby’s dealership was its unique charm and character. The showroom floor was covered by reclaimed antique wood and there were overstuffed leather couches set about the showroom. Anyone entering this facility immediately got the sense of family, individuality, and most importantly, genuineness. I was further impressed to learn that anyone who purchases a vehicle from Adventure Chevrolet gets free oil changes and tires for life.

This and other similarly innovative programs that Kirby runs has allowed him to become a top performing Chevrolet dealership in every respect. But, hold on- Kirby will likely face a problem under the new GM regime. While he performs, I’m sure that he doesn’t conform. Kirby’s unique approach to his business exemplifies the spirit of the entrepreneur franchisee. I fear that if General Motors does not exercise prudent judgment, Kirby will be faced with the decision to either relinquish his franchise or construct a corporate facility clad with cheesy Dryvit panels. Moreover, he would probably have to give up his oil changes and tires for life program in order to service the debt for the new facility.

I further wonder what GM’s new conformity requirements would mean if Galpin Ford in Los Angeles, California was a Chevrolet dealer. Anyone that has ever walked into Galpin Ford immediately senses a genuine commitment to excellence. The Bachman family has meticulously upgraded and maintained their half century old facility to reflect the class and individuality of their family. If there was a historical landmark designation for dealerships, Galpin Ford and Kirby’s Adventure Chevrolet would undoubtedly be recipients.

Ironically, however, dealerships like these probably wouldn’t conform and their owners would be compelled to replicate the corporate image that I found in the corn fields of Ohio. The charcoal grill at the Ohio dealership stands as a reminder that people sell cars to people. While the facilities need to be maintained and yes, updated, they must reflect the character of the community, owners and brands they represent. I urge GM’s new Chairman Whitacre to take note of the fact that simply constructing a facility that bears a cookie cutter corporate image does not ensure the success of its products.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]