I am greatly saddened as I sit here pouring my thoughts into my keyboard. I’ve written numerous articles through the years detailing the fall of Cadillac, an American luxury icon. A voice inside my head keeps screaming, “Why?”
I am about to rant an outpouring of my personal opinions, emotions, and perceptions as I have done so many times in years past. It isn’t always negative. I have owned nine Escalades and seven Chevrolet Corvettes. I was a cheerleader for the brand. And I still love General Motors; I am just enraged by their management.
When Mary Barra was appointed chairman and CEO of GM, I was ecstatic that they had selected a woman for that position. Four years later, I am scratching my head and saying, “Yes, but not that one.”
Uh-oh! The angel on my right shoulder just said, “Ziegler, are you nuts? Talking bad about Mary Barra is sort of like slapping Mother Teresa.” And now the devil on my left shoulder is saying, “Go ahead, big boy. You never backed down from the truth before.”
Wonder which angel I’ll listen to before I send this article to the editor? Since it’s only one man’s opinion, and I might be wrong, I’ll just go with my gut.
Where Are Your Priorities?
Mary has been quoted on more than one occasion as saying she has three priorities: stockholders, customers, and profits.
Now wait a minute. What about the dealers?
GM’s disdain for their dealers is evident in the fact that they no longer invite you to participate in monthly videoconference calls. The only time GM turns to their dealers is when they dig themselves into a hole so deep they need us to bail them out — which has happened repeatedly throughout history.
In researching this article, I reflected back to the mid-’80s, when I was a manager at Potamkin Cadillac in Atlanta. I was privileged to experience the last glory days of the brand. The Potamkins were all about the luxurious and prestigious Cadillac brand. We had black tie champagne showcases and gave customers mink coats with every purchase. (Fur was not yet murder.)
The cars had names like El Dorado, Fleetwood Brougham, Biarritz, and Seville. People knew the cars by name. It was everyone’s dream to own one someday. In his 1977 hit “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” Meat Loaf sang, “But there ain’t no Coupe de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.”
Throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and into the mid-’80s, Cadillac was the gold standard. If you compared something to a Cadillac, it was the very best. All the movie stars and rock stars, from Bob Hope to Elvis Presley, owned at least one.
Somehow, it took GM less than 30 years to totally destroy the brand. It’s sort of like my beloved Atlanta Falcons blowing a 28-point lead to lose the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots. What is even more incredible is that these people think they’re brilliant and can’t face up to or admit their own ineptitude and incompetence.
You’re the Worst
Forget about the alleged bumbling incompetence of Rick Wagoner, under whose leadership GM pissed away $30 billion dollars in less than a decade. The bankruptcy was supposed to be a reboot, a second chance at redemption. And GM has engineered some brilliant advancements and put some great products on the street.
So it’s not all bad. Except for Cadillac, where it is incredibly bad, the worst.
At this year’s Detroit auto show, GM President Mark Reuss was quoted as saying, “We don’t have any chances left with taking Cadillac to a really new place. This is pretty much it.”
Reuss is one of the few people left at GM that I like. But that fatalistic statement sounds like they might do away with the brand. Excuse me, Mark, but predictably moronic moves at the executive level are the only reason Cadillac is where it is.
I’m not going to dedicate this article to beating you guys up over the Johann de Nysschen debacle. Mary Barra owns that one.
I seem to remember Barra touting de Nysschen as the man who would spearhead the resurgence of the brand. All he needed was $12 billion and a plan.
What did Johann achieve? Well, first of all he moved Cadillac headquarters from Detroit to Manhattan, which I perceived as a stupid vanity move to get away from daily scrutiny at RenCen. Coffee shot out of my nose when I read that news. And it wasn’t the last time.
It was better than watching the Three Stooges on drugs. I could just picture de Nysschen saying ‘Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!’
First of all, he gave every model in the lineup a new, meaningless, alphanumeric name, including a few that replaced names some previous fool had come up with. Then he noticed the SRX was Cadillac’s bestseller. So he killed that vehicle and gave the name to another.
Then de Nysschen jumped on the subscription bandwagon. When “The Book” first launched, I was laughing uncontrollably. It was better than watching the Three Stooges on drugs. I could just picture de Nysschen saying “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!”
I wrote at least five articles in the magazines at the time, all describing how illogically stupid and disastrous their entire Cadillac brand strategy was. Go back and read those articles and you’ll see how deadly accurate everything I said was. History has once again vindicated me.
There’s no disputing common sense when it’s well documented. That’s right — I said it, GM did it, and Mary owns it.
Now here we are. They’re acting like Cadillac is down for the count. Does it have to be that way? Only until management can swallow some crow and lose the attitude. Your dealers can pull this ox out of the ditch. They have done it many times in the past.
Bring Back Brand Equity
Cadillac’s situation is far from hopeless. For proof, look no further than Dearborn. Lincoln is experiencing a renaissance while you are trying to be something you are not and will never be.
Cadillac is an American icon. Stop trying to be European. Nobody wants a cheap Audi knockoff. Your cars are ugly, they have no identity, and the quality is questionable.
Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think so. J.D. Power gave some of your 2019 models a dependability rating of 2.5 out of five, and some of the shop techs I’ve talked to would call that generous. And don’t blame it on dealer prep, and don’t bother getting all indignant and calling me a liar. You can tell the public whatever you want. We’re all car people here and we see it as it actually is.
Have you seen the new XT6 SUV? GM propogandists say it will compete against the Audi Q7, BMW X5, and Lincoln’s Aviator. Well, I have seen the car, and to that I say, “In your dreams.”
On a recent monthly call, a GM executive had the cajones to say that Cadillac was No. 1 in its class. Dealers were shaking their heads. What was this guy smoking? Are they delusional?
It’s a thinly disguised secret that 54% of all Cadillac sales are coming from China. That’s a fragile hook to hang your hat on.
Carl Sewell is the No. 1 premium Cadillac dealer in the country. He struggles to sell 100 units and has to give them away to hit the numbers.
Of course, if I were the king of General Motors, the first thing I might do with Cadillac is to rebadge every car with exciting names that inspire consumers, names they can remember and identify with. We used to call this concept “brand equity.”
A few years back, I met with Alan Mulally at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia shortly after he first became CEO of Ford. We were keynote speakers at a meeting of the Virginia and Maryland dealer associations. When I suggested to him that he should steer Ford away from alphanumeric names, he listened, and so have the current executives at Lincoln.
It’s no secret that Ford’s luxury lineup is on fire, and they’ve got some really exciting product in the pipeline. The Lincoln Navigator is crushing the Escalade to the point where GM is throwing out huge amounts of dealer money to keep it above water. I predict the new Lincoln Aviator, for which Cadillac has no real category competitor, will hit them just as hard.
Then, back to Cadillac, all of their eggs seem to be in one basket. It’s a thinly disguised secret that 54% of all Cadillac sales are coming from China. That’s a fragile hook to hang your hat on.
Then there’s the issue with their misguided lack of marketing. The TV commercials with all the models and gangs driving their Cadillac XT4s are laughable. Nice try, but no comparison to the Escalade launch spots from 20 years ago.
Do You Not Sell Cadillacs?
Dealers tell me that one of the stupidest things GM has done is forbidding them from listing their Cadillacs with the rest of their new vehicle inventory. Customers who don’t find a dealer’s separate Cadillac website can’t be blamed for assuming the dealer doesn’t sell them.
Have you people had a brain cramp or something?
Meanwhile, GM has stolen all of the profits out of the deals with a 3% markup and zero percent holdback. They expect you to lose money on the sale of the cars, which virtually all dealers do. You’re just trying to hit a number they made up (and keep moving) to try to get some kind of retro money.
You can no longer afford professional, experienced salespeople, so you pay peanuts and get monkeys.
When I was with a Cadillac dealer, we had a 28% markup to work with. We weren’t making a 28% profit, but we had margin to creatively structure the deals, get the banks to buy more, and give the customer a discount sufficient to make them feel good about the price.
Can Cadillac resurge, revive, and flourish again? Of course. If I was in charge — really in charge — I could make it happen in less than a year.
That being said, given the opportunity, I would have to pass. Right now, I have other priorities.
Last month I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of esophageal cancer. The doctors and surgeons tell me the ordeal ahead will be everything I can handle — from chemo and radiation to an intensive, eight-hour surgery.
I may be a lot less visible in the magazines and on social media in the months ahead. So wish me well, and as for you Cadillac dealers, please know I wrote this article out of love. I’ve dedicated my adult life to championing your causes and telling the factory things you couldn’t say yourself. I want the Cadillac brand to return to glory just as much as you do. I wish I could say the same for GM.