No Saturnalia: The Sad Death of a Corporate Maverick
Hummer Lives While Saturn Dies??
If you own a Hummer, I don’t hate you. Honest. Please, buy thirty or forty more of them. The economy needs it.
This is a tale of two car dealerships located roughly a block apart in the endless suburban sprawl that defines Fishers, Indiana along State Road 37. Just a strip mall’s distance apart stands a vacant Hummer lot and a functioning Saturn dealership. In just a few months, however, those descriptions will be reversed, as the gleaming, all-glass Hummer site is merely closed for expansion while Saturn received its official death notice from General Motors in October, closing all of its remaining 350 dealerships across the United States and Canada by early 2010.
This turn of events is troubling and doesn’t bode well for any facet of American life, from the economy, to the environment, to the input afforded employees in the corporate work place. Right up front I’ll admit that in the past fifteen years I’ve owned three successive Saturns and never once have I even remotely entertained driving, let alone buying, the hulking, boxy tank that is a Hummer. Aside from its garish aesthetics and the insatiable amount of fuel it must consume, I consider Hummers as mainly the domain of those with penis envy, and in this case I’m speaking of males. And there you have my biases before you.
NPR introduced its demise of Saturn coverage by saying, “Saturn was designed to save General Motors, but today GM killed Saturn.” While it is seriously doubtful that Saturn was ever intended to save what was at the time the world’s leading car seller, it was an innovative brand that seemed to out-think the big three on most levels. It made smaller, fuel efficient cars that Americans would actually buy. It granted its assembly line workers unheard of influence relating to production decisions, and negotiated a separate, more incentive-laden contract with the United Auto Workers. Saturn’s slogan, “A Different Kind of Car Company,” hit a far more genuine note than most Madison Avenue ad campaigns.
Saturn was always more than a mere brand to those who drank from its Kool-Aid. My own kids literally begged to come to the Saturn dealership with me when I was getting my oil changed or car tuned. The people there were nice, the place was lively and they handed out free popcorn, freshly baked cookies and pop to all comers. The showroom owed as much to Barnum and Bailey as it did to Henry Ford, evoking a family friendly, carnival atmosphere. Costumer loyalty was legion and that stemmed from two main sources: a quality product and decidedly “uncorporate-like” treatment. More than 44,000 Saturn owners attended the Spring Hill, Tennessee costumer ‘reunion’ in 1994. For a niche product, that’s an impressive figure. Can you fathom Ford, GM, or Chrysler throwing a “customer reunion celebration” in Detroit? Me neither. A couple of hundred people might show up, only to have errant gunfire hastily put the kabash to the event. Through the ‘90s, the Fishers dealership held monthly barbecues with a car maintenance lesson thrown in. For free ribs and steak fries, I’d gladly listen to Rodney from Service drone on about the finer points of a serpentine belt for twenty minutes.
In 2000, I almost drove the wheels off my ’94 Saturn coupe during a strange odyssey that meandered from Indianapolis to Fargo, North Dakota and back via Minneapolis (don’t ask). At journey’s end, my exhausted car needed major repairs for the first and only time in its existence. I had surpassed all the warranty limits and the work was estimated by my local dealership to cost around $2,200. The service manager said, “You’ve been a good customer so we’re going to consider you still under warranty. The work will cost $200.” They even set me up with a free rental until my car was fixed. Saturn had now ensured that they had me as a customer for life and of course, I told many others about their unlikely largesse. Again, can you imagine any of the big three ever making such a benevolent gesture toward a customer? Me neither.
This decade however, Saturn seemed to lose its way somewhat, entering the ill-fated SUV market, losing its separately negotiated UAW contract status, and moving its production headquarters from Tennessee to Mexico. The dealership in Fishers even dispensed with the free home baked cookies once the economy hit the skids. Toyota and Honda fought back, eroding the SL market that Saturn had carved for itself, and the economic meltdown of the past few years ultimately spelled Saturn’s doom, as Chevrolet-dominated GM looked for ways to scale down its bloated operations. Racing magnate Roger Penske made noises about buying Saturn from General Motors, but abandoned that pursuit when his deal with another car maker – widely rumored to be Renault – to produce Saturn’s future model lines fell through.
Sadly, Saturn not only didn’t save GM from requiring massive infusions of federal bailout cash, but couldn’t even save itself in the end. It deserved a better fate and in its 1990s incarnation especially, still holds many essential lessons that the big three could do well to emulate. Saturn didn’t die because it was too unique to work. It died because it strayed too far from its own corporate model.