Mason bringing new attitude to GM post

Last fall, Thomas Mason, General Motors of Canada's then newly appointed vice-president of marketing, assembled a small team of gm's top executives and travelled across the country holding round table discussions with members of the gm dealer body.Accompanying Mason on the...

Last fall, Thomas Mason, General Motors of Canada’s then newly appointed vice-president of marketing, assembled a small team of gm’s top executives and travelled across the country holding round table discussions with members of the gm dealer body.

Accompanying Mason on the trip were George Peapples, president of the Oshawa, Ont.-based automaker, Dick Conlin, general director of field services, and Peter Bagnall, general director of customer support services.

Also present were the heads of both the finance and engineering departments.

The opportunity to speak their minds with top decision-makers at gm, Canada’s No. 1 automaker, came as a welcome shock to many of the company’s 900-plus dealers.

gm dealers are unaccustomed to such high-level access at the best of times and they had just spent two years virtually frozen out of the decision-making process by Mason’s predecessor, Michael Erdman.

Significantly, the high-powered tour underlines Mason’s commitment to building and maintaining healthy relations between gm and its dealers.

At the same time, it exemplifies the kinds of things gm has begun to do differently as it strives to succeed in the fast-evolving marketing world of the 1990s.

‘It’s not a secret that gm lost several billion dollars a couple of years ago,’ says Mason, who assumed his new post Sept. 1, 1992.

‘If you don’t break out of the mold when you are losing money like that, you’re going to be in trouble,’ he says.

‘The entire culture of gm has changed dramatically in just the last six months, in the u.s., in Canada, and around the world. The level of risk-taking, the level of creativity, and the level of not-doing-business-as-usual has increased dramatically.’

gm employees say Mason’s arrival has led to a palpable improvement in the atmosphere in the company’s marketing department.

In contrast to Mason, Erdman, an old-style gm marketer out of Detroit, ran a top-down organization and showed little interest in ideas generated outside of his inner circle of powerful executives.

Conlin recalls that during Erdman’s tenure, which began in September 1990 and ended suddenly in early August 1992, the company’s marketers tended to keep their heads low, leaving the ‘decision-making up to their superiors.’

Indeed, the exclusive nature of Erdman’s management style ultimately led to his ouster in a quiet coup led by a disgruntled faction of the dealer body.

Conlin says that with the arrival of Mason, who champions an inclusive management style in which ideas are solicited from all areas of the organization, ‘the staff are now more willing to express ideas.’

And the dealers, whom Erdman had cut off from the levers of power, say they have begun to feel once again that they are integral members of the gm family.

According to Mason, it has become clear to gm that as it struggles to stay on top, it will have to pay increasing attention to the way it markets itself and its products.

‘I look around at competitors’ products and I’d be very happy driving theirs as well as ours,’ he says.

‘The quality is there, the price is competitive, they are all good on fuel economy. So the product differentiators become more marketing-specific differentiators.’

Mason, who holds a bachelor of mechanical engineering from the General Motors Institute and a master of business administration from the advanced management program at Michigan State university, began his career with gm in 1961 as a student assembly worker.

After working in several areas of manufacturing, he transferred to Chevrolet’s marketing department in 1969.

Over the years, he has held a variety of increasingly responsible marketing and sales positions. In 1988, he transferred to GM Europe as vice-president, sales, service and parts.

gm’s decision last year to include 24-hour roadside assistance in the selling price of its 1993 car models was a signal to the marketplace the company was not about to back down from the challenge of marketing in the 1990s.

Nissan Canada had taken the car market by surprise a year earlier when it pioneered the concept of 24-hour roadside assistance in Canada.

At the time, it was unclear whether a company the size of gm had the flexibility to institute such a customer-sensitive marketing program.

But Mason says programs such as 24-hour assistance have become a priority for gm because the automaker has instituted an umbrella ‘Customers for Life’ marketing strategy.

‘We are trying to improve the customer experience to the point that we generate customers for life,’ he says, adding ‘every manufacturer has a better opportunity to resell its own owner body than it does to conquer a competitor’s owner.’

Mason says the customers-for-life strategy is the basis for more recent gm marketing initiatives such as the GM VISA credit card and the Goodwrench auto service program, both introduced earlier this year.

According to Mason, gm’s 1993 advertising budget will be marginally larger than its 1992 spend of slightly more than $109 million, as measured by A.C. Nielsen.

He attributes the increase to the advertising support required to launch the new credit card and auto service programs.