AS THE corporate jet touches down at Essendon Airport on the morning of August 22, 2018, the heavy-set, lantern-jawed executive in the back has a lot on his mind. Mark Reuss is on a rescue mission, flying close air support for both the troubled GM Holden operation he once led, and its new Chairman and Managing Director Dave Buttner, who weeks earlier had been parachuted into the Fishermans Bend hot seat.
It’s a fair bet that the man who now sits in the presidential chair in GM’s global operations has better ways to fill his days than the marathon 20-plus-hour flight Down Under. As does his travelling companion, Mike Simcoe, the former Holden designer who penned 2001’s born-again Monaro and is now Vice President of GM’s global design operations in Detroit.
It’s a heavy delegation and it says much about the ‘New GM’ that the Gulfstream they’ve used to jet across the Pacific is a second-hand unit, purchased from giant US machinery maker John Deere. Back in the day, GM would have ordered a matching pair of its own jets.
Reuss could have simply avoided the domestic fallout that followed the shutdown of Commodore production Down Under, but he has a special affection for Holden.
Reuss’s time at Holden ran for just 18 months, from February 2008 to the end of August 2009, but he admits it had a profound impact. “I went back [to Melbourne] last year and saw the house we lived in, and saw that many of the same restaurants and places we used to go are all still there, and it just brought back great memories,” he tells Wheels.
“Holden will always be special to me. I had a great experience there and built great business and personal relationships. I still keep in touch with my friends at Holden, and in the Holden car club. I loved my time at Holden. It was dynamic, exciting and, at times, we were living on the edge. But people had faith in us.”
In fact, from the moment Reuss arrived in the MD’s chair at Holden, he showed he was not just another midlevel American executive looking to serve his time, get his card punched and progress up the corporate ladder.
Energetic, inspirational and committed, he ‘got’ Holden, bringing the analytical and problem-solving perspective of an engineer, the enthusiasm of a racer who is a certified Nurburgring test driver, and the commercial insight of a top-class businessman.
Crucially, Reuss was also a dirt-under-the-fingernails boss, an old-fashioned car guy in an era where they are becoming a rarity, and someone who still liked to hustle his company’s products around the Lang Lang proving ground in order to better understand what the organisation was flogging.
As a muscle-car fan he was aware of Holden’s history and its racetrack successes, and wore his passions on his sleeve, in the form of a Cadillac Racing jacket and an HSV lapel pin. A competition helmet and HANS safety device sat proudly on his office bookcase and, when he did eventually ship home, the souvenirs he chose were a classic red FC Holden and the bonnet from a Supercars Commodore.
Reuss’s skill, authenticity and work ethic quickly won him respect within the parochial Aussie organisation, while his commitment to local manufacturing was evident in the way he pushed to have the compact Cruze built here, and won export orders for the long-wheelbase Statesman, as a US cop car.
The Detroit native and GM-lifer used his network back home to develop a five-year product plan that protected the Commodore and local manufacturing, while also ensuring a solid supply of imported models to fill showrooms.
But GM’s problems ran far deeper than its problematic Australian outpost, and Reuss, along with every other GM executive, was soon manning the pumps as the Global Financial Crisis sucked it and Chrysler down the bankruptcy drain hole.
He did double-duty throughout this turbulent period, leading Holden through its own troubles, while writing crucial parts of a survival plan designed to keep the GM mothership afloat, before his urgent recall to Michigan in August, 2009.
It’s history now that GM and Chrysler only dodged bankruptcy thanks to a massive US Government bail-out, but even that could not avoid the heartbreak of brand closures, factory shutdowns, job losses and sustained pressure on every aspect of the organisation’s global operations.
Despite massive problems in the US domestic market, Reuss managed to muscle through an export program that enabled the Commodore-based Chevy SS to briefly become a low-volume hero car there, as well as the bow-tie brand’s frontline fighter in the high-profile NASCAR racing series.
Eventually, the ripples from the financial tsunami reached Australia, washing up on our fatal shores and over an industry that had long been dependent on its own form of government life support. Throughout the dark days of 2016-17, Reuss watched from afar as Australian car-making spiralled inexorably downwards; as first Ford, then Toyota and eventually Holden closed their manufacturing operations.
Ultimately, despite his obvious affection for Holden, even Reuss couldn’t save the Commodore. There was no magic wand.
“There’s no way that Holden can make cars there alone, it can’t happen,” Reuss tells Wheels, months after the final Commodore was cheered down the line. “If we don’t have a supply base for at least three manufacturers there, it’s not financially viable for anybody to make vehicles in Australia. The decision is taken out of your hands.
“It’s a very frustrating topic. But there were several factors that we couldn’t control; sustained strength of the Australian dollar, high cost of production, and deteriorating supply base. We held out as long as we could and were the last to close.”
Now rightly regarded as an honorary Aussie, Reuss is, in fact, an American prodigy and a product of the GM system that saw him enter the organisation as a mechanical-engineering intern in 1983, before embarking on the relentless path that sees him sitting alongside the most powerful people in the organisation, as a member of GM’s Senior Leadership Team.
Six months after his Gulfstream landed at Essendon airport, Reuss would be appointed to the same presidential chair occupied by his father, Lloyd Reuss, in the early 1990s.
“I certainly didn’t dream of becoming president of GM,” he says. “I always really wanted to be a chief engineer of a car, and I would have done anything to be able to do that. It came a little earlier than I thought, in 1995, and I learned a tonne from that experience. Since then I’ve been asked to do a lot of different things and I’ve always done them the best I could.
“I’ve had many different careers, all at one company. Where else can you do that?”
According to one GM insider, Reuss’s presidential appointment, on January 3 this year, was just a case of his job title catching up with the work he was already doing, alongside GM’s CEO and chairwoman, Mary Barra.
They form an impressive double act, with Reuss’s expanded role covering design, engineering, safety, quality, research-anddevelopment, advanced vehicle technology and more.
If there is anyone who knows GM, its products and its new President, it is the organisation’s one-time vice-chairman and car tsar Bob Lutz. A former fighter pilot with a ramrod attitude to everything from his posture to what makes a great car, Lutz gives a typically blunt assessment of the man.
“Mark Reuss is a talented and strong-willed executive. He is passionate about the product and always strives for ‘Best in Class’,” says Lutz.
“That’s a good way for a president of a car company to be. There are always enough bean counters to keep him in check; but his level of passion is rare in a top auto executive.
“GM will have superior products under his tenure. Good.” Reuss is proving it, with the product-driven push that has put GM back on track, although there are still tough choices every day. The company is no longer a rival for Toyota, VW or Daimler in the global rankings, but is still a solid fourth, with big plans.
“Mary and I, in our careers, have probably seen more ups and downs of a company than most people. Even in just the past decade,” Reuss says.
“It’s part of who I am. I grew up in it. But it’s a different place now, obviously. Back in the day it was a corporate icon of how things should be organised and run. It was a model for corporate America for a long time. Today, it’s much more agile, full of very talented people and it’s a model for what should be successful in America, and around the globe.”
Reuss is 55, right in the sweet spot for a corporate executive, and may eventually come to be judged as one of the great leaders in GM’s storied 111-year history. Yet he must still face the 21st-century challenges that are ahead of GM, and the whole motor industry.
“We’re at a significant point in automotive history; it’s like being around when horses gave way to automobiles,” says Reuss.
“The industry will continue to provide transportation, freedom and a reflection of who you are, for the foreseeable future. It’s amazing, because you don’t know the exact time frame when things will change, but electrification will arrive full-scale, before autonomy.”
Quite how Holden will fit into that picture isn’t immediately obvious, with recent strongly refuted suggestions that the brand that gave us “Australia’s own car” was set to be taken over by UK-owned multinational distributor Inchcape.
But back at Essendon airport on that chilly August day last year, Reuss seemed as passionate about the brand as he’d ever been, telling the assembled media scrum: “We’re here to make sure that Holden is strong,” before heading to the Lang Lang proving ground to wave the Red Lion flag and inspire Buttner’s key dealers. Many of whom have more questions than answers.
NOT JUST UGLY, AHEAD OF ITS TIME
Ask Mark Reuss about the Pontiac Aztek and the reaction is a combination of a laugh and a groan. He accepts that it is ugly, and best known as a sales failure in the car world, although it has surged back to popularity as Walter White’s car in the Breaking Bad series.
Reuss was the project leader on the Aztek and says it was simply a car ahead of its time. “Look what Subaru has done, that is what we were doing with the Aztek. It was a small, practical, SUV,” he says.
“The Aztek was a tough assignment, to make a crossover off a minivan platform, to make it competitive, to create it quickly for a company that was desperate for change.
“Those were the circumstances under which it was done. Live and learn. And I had nothing to do with the styling.”