This was a giant of a man, not only in physical presence but in his demeanour, capability and ability to interact with people at any level of the social spectrum. At the age of 45 his tenure at GMSA as the MD of the operation started in late 1970 and was unique in that this was a special GMOO (General Motors Overseas Operations) appointment as a troubleshooter, having been given the specific task of fixing the ailing local GM operation. This was not the conventional replacement of an American MD arriving/leaving as a step in climbing the GM Corporate ladder (which happened every 4 years or so) … Bob arrived with serious intent and hit the ground running.
I must firstly just touch on another quaint GM cultural oddity…”the GM salute” or in more recent times as it has become known as the “GM Nod”…. For any real detail on this there are any number of excellent articles on this aspect of GM management culture and to which I can attest as having been prevalent in the SA operation. One aspect of this was how upper management groups could close ranks in an organisation when a new leader appeared. For GM it was something more focused and the need to maintain the status quo amongst the top group whilst ‘defending the realm’ for the next four years, was something that really happened. The team did not anticipate what Price was about though and he cut through the defence lines like a knife through butter. For those that do not believe that this kind of behaviour exists in large corporates, here is a taste of what happened in the few months after he arrived:
Firstly, while respecting his senior staff, the man virtually sidelined management in the quest to find the real pulse of the SA operation. His first task was to understand the environment, so there followed meetings with government officials, dealers and the dealer council (notice how I separated those two) and GM staff*. He instituted his renowned ‘confetti’ system of information gathering and the blisteringly accurate follow up. There was no place to hide…and he topped this off by having someone of substantial integrity as his PA.
* Within weeks of his arrival, Price had sussed out that there was a serious amount of discord in the ranks and he did something which in those days was startlingly unique and surprisingly, in all my years in business, not seen since.
Rod Ironside the Senior HR man was tasked with putting together a collection of the most vocal critics of the company, taken from rank and file employees. Whilst the group had a formal name which I cannot recall, we called it the ‘shit stirrers’ group… This was in no way intended to ‘muzzle’ those involved but was actively chaired by Price himself, meetings were held regularly and where Ironside was required to handle each complaint/issue with feedback at the following meeting.
It worked wonders on many fronts…problems were resolved, silly inputs were put in their place and negative behaviour capped.
Amongst all this I was roped into the team establishing product quality “grass parades” where the service engineers were given opportunity “to tell it like it was”…the first glimpse of what the man was about were becoming abundantly clear.
Whilst this activity was implemented with deference to all concerned, within weeks the very first major decision rocked the establishment to its core. The pending Firenza dealer and retail new car launch was stopped in its tracks and production of the new cars halted. For us car company guys we know that this is just not done in the motor industry…a new vehicle launch plan is sacrosanct, it is the lifeblood of all that is sacred and the team will metaphorically spill a little of that blood to keep things on track… and in the 70’s, project timing was maintained, sometimes turning a blind eye allowing issues to slip through the net.
After all, in those times there was a bit of poetic licence tolerating the fact that new vehicle ‘teething problems’ could affect early customers… and that was OK…or so it was thought…but not by Bob. His Dealer visits and “frankly speaking” discussions with staff members critical of many issues had laid bare the threads of what needed doing. I regale the incident that broke the camel’s back. This event sent a clear message that he was in charge and that there was a new, very different path being established on how problems were to be solved.
Having arrived a few months before the scheduled launch of the new Chevrolet Firenza (aka Vauxhall Viva), Price decided on a clandestine road trip to key dealers around the country, taking with him two early production versions of the proposed new ‘Chevy’ Firenza…a 1159cc sedan and a 2.5 Litre Coupe. The cars were generally very well accepted by the dealer groups …until a final stop in Bloemfontein…and here the story as it was passed on to me directly by our Service division GM at the time. As I understand it, the cars were displayed after hours in these selected operations in order for the sales and service teams to have a good look and test drive the cars as discreetly as possible. All was going fine until the dealer principal of the operation opened the bonnet of the 2.5 …with Price standing fairly close by and after taking a look at the engine…he simply dropped the bonnet from its open height and angrily muttered words to this effect in Afrikaans… “Hierdie ding gaan nie op my perseel verkoop word nie”. (This thing is not going to be sold on my premises.)
To say that the incident put the cat amongst the pigeons is the understatement of the century. All hell broke loose, not with the dealer, who had explained his disquiet to Bob at the time, but back at HQ the next day. GM engineering and service engineering were hauled into a meeting to explain. The saga of the ongoing battle between the two operations regarding the poor serviceability of the Carter YF carburettor (also fitted to the 2.5 Chevy engine in previous applications), along with masses of customer complaints, was laid bare.
The point being made is that this incident identified the “salute” to be alive and well. GM managers were prone to avoiding ‘fixing’ things because somebody would have to fall on his sword to do so…so finger pointing was a part of daily life. In this instance it was the classic stand-off between two silos in the organisation. Service lived with the problem of constant poor driveabilty complaints …and engineering constantly advised the service division that the problem was because dealers did not know how to set the carbs up properly…after all they, engineering, ‘could fix any vehicle’. The real problem which was the fact that the carbs should not go out of tune in the first place, was being conveniently ignored by engineering and worse, something I never understood, service engineers were sucked into this logic.. crazy but true. I think that Price must have looked at this lot and realised he was dealing with exactly what he had been sent there to fix, so this is the point at which the launch and production was halted. There was no short term solution to fix the YF (the jury is probably still out as to the exact reason for the carb problem)… thankfully there was a better answer.