New president of GM Dan Ammann has a profile that is unusual, in that he’s a 42-year-old New Zealander, former banker and management consultant, claimed by his PR men to be quite handy behind the wheel.
My previous experience of bankers and industry cheeses tells me some would be hard pressed even to recognise a steering wheel, so I couldn’t help wondering if this guy had been oversold. But it turned out he did GM’s high performance driving course four years ago, was rapidly recognised as a wheelman of talent, graduated to the top level of a seven-tier course and is now rated as one of a dozen of GM’s drivers.
We stormed up Goodwood's famous hill in a Vauxhall VXR8 in fine style, touching the rev-limiter in third (100mph) before scything confidently through the hill's one treacherous corner, Molecombe, and on to the finish. Ammann himself turned out to be a really friendly, interesting bloke who was happy to discuss his real mission, a first official visit to the UK, GM’s fourth-biggest global market.
In bygone days, the GM presidency could only ever have gone to a grey-headed “lifer”, but Ammann won the job last January after only four years in the company, one of a new, youthful triumvirate comprising CEO Mary Barra, head of global product development Mark Reuss and himself.
At first it seemed the trio would effortlessly streamline things and good times would roll again for America’s biggest car company. But then GM was hit by a gigantic recall scandal over faulty ignition locks that had dogged millions of GM cars for many years and allegedly killed 13 people. It was a hangover, the pundits said, from a ruthlessly cost-driven culture of disorganised management and indifferent cars.
Ammann speaks about the scandal with a fascinating mixture of care (because of legal implications) and fluency (he’s had plenty of practice). “The recall decision should have been made many years ago,” he says, “but GM was different when the problems started to manifest themselves in the early 2000s. We were still regional, not the global organisation we are now.
“Our task now is to take responsibility for what has happened, and to find and help everyone affected. There has been a rigorous internal investigation with the findings revealed in excruciating and gory detail, and so far we’ve spent $2billion on recalls.”
On other fronts GM is “in good shape”, says Ammann. The company doesn’t much care whether it is the world’s second or third biggest car maker as long as cars keep selling. The US economy is recovering as total car sales push towards 14 million (“We can’t build enough big SUVs”). In China, a total market of 42 million cars is predicted. Buick and Chevy are flying and there will soon be a big push with Cadillac.
And Europe? You get the impression the mounting achievements of the ex-VW Opel-Vauxhall boss Dr Karl Thomas Neumann - or “KTN” as they call him - play well in Detroit. Amman confirms the division will be profitable by mid-decade, and plans to be Europe’s number two (behind VW) by 2022, commanding eight per cent of the European market share and earning around five per cent of turnover.
Is five per cent too conservative? “Not if it’s sustainable, “says Ammann. “And not if you’ve been at minus five for quite a while…”
Ammann professes himself “surprised and impressed” with the strength of Vauxhall, especially with the deeply loyal workforce, the reliably strong sales, the rich heritage and the burning desire among loyalists to progress the business.
Ammann offers no bullish projections for the slow-selling Volt/Ampera plug-in hybrid, which GM Europe’s car factories once vied to produce back when sales were predicted at much higher levels than today.
“Three or four years ago the car was a really important statement about our technical capability,” says the president, while admitting that apart from early adopters few customers won't buy in volume. Is GM disappointed at the low take-up? “Not really,” says Ammann. “No-one made us do it. But if you asked me whether electric cars have worked as we hoped, I’d have to say they have not.
"On the other hand, if you’d said ten years ago we’d be achieving the low overall CO2 levels of today, many people wouldn’t have believed you. That’s pretty good compensation.”