By Herman Silochan
When Kevin Williams was made President and Managing Director of GM Canada in 2010, North American consumer confidence was at its lowest in a generation, perhaps the lowest since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Auto sales were so slow, overcapacity and redundant models filled Oshawa’s massive lots and nearby train yards.
South of the border, President Barack Obama had no choice but to bail out GM and Chrysler. He saved close to 200,000 jobs with one signature.
Here in Canada, Williams, the kid from Maryland and Tennessee, was no slouch either in facing adverse business and the workers therein. His curriculum of appointments, extra activities in serving the community is long and prestigious. Williams, nurtured in technical school and with business degrees, is also a global man, crucial in today’s mega corporations. With China, Mexico, Brazil and India making cars by the millions, you have to constantly look in the rear view mirror to see what’s coming up behind you. The auto lanes are crowded as never before.
So, it’s no surprise to see at this week’s Canadian International Auto Show the bold displays of Asian and European cars. Everything sparkles. It is as equal to Detroit in its offerings, maybe even more with its historic and custom displays. Last Thursday was for the media, with several unveilings, lots of snacks and gallons of coffee.
Kevin Williams and I are sitting in the Verona Café, a nice relaxing place surrounded by all new Buick models, the Verona, Regal, Encore and Enclave.
He is obviously proud after three years in Canada, that a resurrection has been achieved. 2012 was a banner year, and 2013 is projected to be even bigger. Consumer confidence had returned, and all those ten year old family cars are due for replacement. Dealerships are busy these days. But where will sales be a decade from now is troubling.
I ask him. “First of all,” he says, “a major restructuring had started when I arrived. We are now into the third year of a five year turnaround plan. We got rid of the Pontiac brand name, SAAB and Saturn. Those were a huge drag on the bottom line. Canadians were attached to Pontiac, but not so much in the States, it was a tough but good decision.
“Then we had to work with Canadian dealerships, there was unevenness here, servicing and nurturing future customers were not getting their fullest attention. Our global marketing group is working with Disney and Four Seasons in fostering 21st century customer appreciation. A customer today is a very, very highly informed individual.
“We have come a long way in recapturing lost market share.”
Yet I reminded him that in 2002 GM Canada sold 519,000 units, and in 2011 sold half that amount, 227,000. That’s a tough road ahead. Also Camaro production is being moved to Michigan by 2015, what will replace it on Canadian assembly lines? After all, we have some world class advanced facilities in Oshawa. Williams is confident that production will not diminish; he reminds me that in production alone, GM Oshawa made close to 800,000 units for the entire North American market.
However picking up the sales shortfall will not be easy because right across from the GM floor are Hyundai, Kia, Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen, whose collective aggressive marketing and design push have won kudos from all sectors of international corporations. Even Ford is making rolls globally and confident of the next decade.
Kevin Williams is very upbeat that GM too has the right stuff, pointing at all the models around him, those gas sipping econo-cars like the Spark and Sonic whose advanced infotainment systems are as good as, or better than many mid-sized near luxury sedans. I listened to them and was very much impressed. He adds that seventy-five percent of GM products are of new design and engineering, and that GM faces the next decade with enormous confidence. He might be right with the new Chevy Impala, all Buicks and the Cadillac ATS now on the market.
At a personal level, he says he is very committed to GM community relations; indeed his roster of memberships and contributions to social organizations, both in the US and Canada, is impressive.
With something so dear to the hearts of this readership is GM material support for the Toronto Caribbean Carnival and the Children’s Carnival new location in Downsview. Williams’s last word,
“I want to see that children’s carnival grow and grow, because they have something important to contribute to Toronto. We are part of that.”