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Oldsmobile: Between a rock and soft face

John Rock she's not.Oldsmobile has had some colorful general managers during its storied history, now past the century mark, but none nearly as macho as John Rock, a self-styled "cowboy" with boots and a salty tongue to match.At around 6'4", he had a commanding presence and backslapping rapport with associates and dealers. You might say he was clearly "one of the boys.""She" is Karen Francis, who

John Rock she's not.

Oldsmobile has had some colorful general managers during its storied history, now past the century mark, but none nearly as macho as John Rock, a self-styled "cowboy" with boots and a salty tongue to match.

At around 6'4", he had a commanding presence and backslapping rapport with associates and dealers. You might say he was clearly "one of the boys."

"She" is Karen Francis, who at 37 completed her first year as Olds' general manager in January. At somewhere around 5'2" and with only four years' experience in the automotive industry, you could say she's the antithesis of men like Mr. Rock.

While he learned the give and take of automotive sales and marketing starting as a teenager (working at his father's North Dakota dealership), she got her pedigree at Ivy League schools, then went on to a series of consumer brand marketing positions, then joined General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Motor Division in 1996 as brand manager for the Venture minivan. Less that three years later, she landed the top Oldsmobile job.

Her No.1 challenge is finally to shed Olds' longtime reputation as a builder of vehicles for the geriatric set. In fact, she's zeroing in on people who are not much different than she is: Young and female. Throw in "techie" as well, which covers a wide span of age groups.

She's already making inroads, but she forecasts a 15% sales dip this year to the low 300,000s level. That reflects sales inflated early in 1999 as GM recovered from a 54-day strike in 1998; its decision in mid-1999 to drop the Cutlass and 88 models; and momentum slowed by new-product introductions, including the all-new 2001 Aurora that reaches showrooms in March.

Sales for 1999 were about 362,000 units, about a 7% increase. But in the 1970s, Oldsmobile was selling about 1 million vehicles a year.

Oldsmobile has 2,975 dealers, which Ms. Francis says is too many for sales volumes in the 300,000s. But she doesn't say how or if GM will prune Olds dealerships. Oldsmobile in recent years has already purged its dealership network.

Mr. Rock, who retired four years ago, commanded Olds during the early '90s when the rumor mill ran wild with reports that its days were numbered. GM, under then-Chairman John Smale, was dismantling its traditionally powerful manufacturing divisions, scaling them down basically to "brand" marketing organizations. And Olds, the granddaddy of them all, was widely considered to be expendable.

Not one to duck a fight, Mr. Rock took out his symbolic six-shooters and blasted away at his critics with a rhetoric fusillade seldom heard in GM's sedate upper echelons.

Armed with the then-all-new entry-luxury 1995 Aurora, Mr. Rock moved to shake the division's stodgy image under the advertising banner of "Not your father's Oldsmobile." Although that tagline got plenty of exposure - you still hear it even though it died several years ago - Olds' sales continued to slide, reviving talk that its demise was imminent. And making matters worse, it turned off Olds' core buyers: Seniors in their 50s and 60s, mostly men.

GM is betting that Ms. Francis' age, gender, smarts, marketing savvy and low-key demeanor and broad smile are exactly what Oldsmobile needs to turn the corner.

But in charting Olds on a course to snap up younger buyers and tap more female prospects, she has an uphill climb: Neither historically has been a major Olds priority.

"We're reintroducing the Oldsmobile brand to today's buyers," she says. "How? We're relevant today, and we've got the products to back that up."

Distancing the division from its past, in 1999 GM dropped two nameplates that had been sacrosanct during its halcyon days: Cutlass and 88. That's after two other marques, the 98 and Omega, were banished from its lineup. Indeed, only three nameplates remain from Mr. Rock's reign: The Silhouette minivan, Bravada sport/utility vehicle and Aurora.

Newcomers include the midsize Intrigue, introduced in 1998, and the Alero compact, which replaced Omega early in 1999. Besides the '01 flagship Aurora, an all-new Bravada is targeted for next January. Olds also gave a hint of what may be coming when it showed the "Profile" concept car, which Ms. Francis describes as "a sexy sedan," at the Los Angeles Auto Show in January.

Although she has no plans to revive the 88 or Cutlass, Ms. Francis allows that "we're going to try not to lose the Cutlass name." Establishing the new names hasn't been as difficult as might be expected, she adds. "Our name recognition is on par with Toyota and Honda models," she maintains.

"Oldsmobile" also is reappearing on the division's vehicles after being downplayed. "The Oldsmobile name has been a deterrent" to reaching younger buyers, she candidly admits, "but now we feel it's safe to put it back on" because Olds is succeeding in driving down the average age of its owners.

Since 1996, Olds studies indicate the average buyers' age has dropped to 48 from 60. The average Alero buyer is in his/her 20s, and some 65% are women, says Ms. Francis, indicating that Alero is hitting Olds' targets on two counts.

The tauter, shorter '01 Aurora aims to slice 10 years from the age of its previous buyers to the high 40s, potentially adding more firepower to Oldsmobile's strategy of attracting a more youthful clientele. Only 30% of Aurora buyers currently are women, but research indicates that can rise to 50%, she says.

Convinced that the '01 Aurora will be a hit, she has doubled the annual sales forecast from the old model to the 40,000 to 45,000 range.

So who is this young woman leading GM's oldest division? Maybe it really doesn't matter that, when asked to name Oldsmobile's most famous model, the original "curved dash" 1903 buckboard on wheels, she came up with a blank: She's clearly looking ahead, not backward.

To those steeped in automotive lore and tradition, she - like many others in GM's new breed of brand managers -comes off as something of an interloper. Before joining GM, her career focused on moving things like Crest toothpaste and pencils and as a consultant with a San Francisco firm.

Grooming her for higher things, after 21 months on the Venture job Ms. Francis was named Chevrolet's Rocky Mountain states regional sales manager, her job before taking over at Olds. She succeeded Darwin Clark, Mr. Rock's successor.

Mr. Clark was equally unlike Mr. Rock. He once described the differences between him and Mr. Rock as "like the difference between green grass and snow."

A New Jersey native, her academic credentials are impressive: An economics degree from Dartmouth College and an MBA from Harvard University.

Ms. Francis has had a string of automobiles including a BMW 325 convertible ("I'd love to do a 4-door Intrigue convertible," she says), and Mazda, Nissan and Camaro models.

Her first car, though, was a '76 sapphire blue Cutlass Supreme she purchased as a teenager in 1979 for $3,600 earned by teaching ice skating and working in retail shops. "It was the hottest car around," she says. "It had a white vinyl roof and white interior. I've always loved cars - but as a consumer."

Now her challenge is to regain momentum after this year's anticipated slippage by appealing, not too surprisingly, to more people like herself.

The needles already are pointing in the right direction, she emphasizes. Besides capturing more youthful buyers, Olds also now claims average household income of its buyers is $67,500, equal to the industry average and up $15,000 in only three years.

Olds claims to be first among domestic brands in the percentage of college graduates among its buyers at 46.6%, a tad behind Toyota and Honda.

But there's much more to do. "Our No.1 challenge is lack of awareness," says Ms. Francis. "Our closing ratio (to those who know Olds' products) is 60%, so we've got to get people to know about us. I'm concerned, but not intimidated, by the challenge."

She concedes that moving Detroit iron is different from her prior marketing jobs, although underscoring that marketing is, well, marketing. "The art of marketing is understanding customers and relating to them," she says. "But with toothpaste you've got to sell them (more) every two weeks. With cars it's every three, four or five years. The key is understanding the business and what the key drivers are. If you've got the right products and market them in a passionate way, you can be successful."

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