Jill Lajdziak, Always Saturn’s Champion, Will Retire From GM
By Brendan Moore
Automotive News has published a report stating that Jill Lajdziak, the general manager of Saturn, will retire from General Motors at the end of this year.
In fact, according to the article, Lajdziak has already left the building, so to speak.
She has turned over the wind-down of Saturn to Steve Hill, GM’s head of retail sales support, and is burning saved-up vacation days off somewhere else as she counts down to her actual last day on the books at GM.
Once the deal for Roger Penske to buy Saturn fell through, and GM subsequently announced it would close Saturn forever as a result, there really wasn’t much reason for Lajdziak to hang around.
I met Lajdziak for the first time years ago at a press event, when Saturn introduced some model year of the Ion. I doubt she would remember that, but she probably remembers the last time we spoke, which was at a media event not so long ago for “mommy bloggers”. In their wisdom, GM Media Relations had somehow decided that this would be a good fit for our publication, so I was invited. Hey, we run a blog, right? And, why would we be given any clues as to the other participants?
When I got there, I, of course, loped over to the open bar, as I am wont to do, where I proceeded to not notice that I didn’t see any of the usual writers there. Jill Lajdziak came in the room, came over to meet and greet, and then asked me what I was doing there. An explanation of the event (Saturn’s focus on safety) from her ensued, and I excused myself, with Ms. Lajdziak apologizing on behalf of GM, and promising she’d make it up to me in the future.
But, no more future.
Lajdziak was like that, very gracious and accommodating in person. However, one could fairly say that she garnered mixed reviews from the Saturn dealer organization and from the automotive press. There was some feeling that, as nice as she was, she was in over her head in terms of management abilities.
Lajdziak joined GM as a DSM (district sales manager) for Chevrolet in 1980, but did not find her purpose in life until she joined the not-yet-born Saturn in 1986 as manager of retail selection. Then, she became a Saturn booster of the highest order and their biggest cheerleader. The diminutive Lajdziak was a huge believer in Saturn and the “Saturn difference”, and was nothing if not eternally optimistic about Saturn’s vehicles and Saturn’s future. She became general manager of the brand in 1999.
Unfortunately, like many others at Saturn, Lajdziak’s faith in Saturn sometimes clouded her ability to be objective about the faults and virtues of Saturn vehicles. She wasn’t the only one at Saturn that occasionally had too much Kool-Aid. I remember being at a couple of press events where the Saturn managers were extolling their current cars (Ion and L-Series) at the time, and journalists turning to each other and asking, “Have these guys ever actually driven their competition?” This was not an uncommon occurrence.
But, to her credit, Lajdziak kept smiling and was always pushing Saturn, no matter what the circumstances at whatever moment you saw her. She was always upbeat, always looking to the future, and always happy to talk some more about Saturn.
Her detractors said the Lajdziak was never much more than the effervescent leader of the Saturn cult, but in all fairness, it couldn’t have been much fun to be responsible for Saturn once the initial glow of Saturn’s first years wore off. After all, they did suck up around $5 billion USD from GM’s coffers, and didn’t do much of anything good with it when the rest of the company (Oldsmobile, anyone?) could have sorely used it. GM started starving Saturn, and by the time the division starting getting regular meals again, it was far, far too late.
So, in over her head? I don’t think any brand manager at GM has (or had) the sort of autonomy to save their division, since their marching orders come from up above, so it’s pretty much a moot point. I mean, if John Rock couldn’t save the aforementioned Oldsmobile, that kind of sets the bar in terms of degree of difficulty, doesn’t it?
Regardless, Ms. Lajdziak has gotten in her Saturn Vue and exited the scene. She deserves a nice retirement, just like anyone else.
Saturn stopped production of all vehicles immediately when the Penske deal fell through, dealers are slowly selling off their now-orphan Saturn cars, and the expensive Saturn experiment is now over. The last month that Saturn dealers can legally operate as a Saturn franchise is October 2010.
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