An open letter to Saab USA management

This letter was originally published in April 2007 as an open letter to Steven Shannon.
It was written after SaabUSA chief Jay Spenchian was moved elsewhere within General Motors and replaced by Steve Shannon. Jay’s tenure was yet another appointment at the top of Saab USA that lasted only a short period.
History will record that Steve Shannon didn’t last long, either.

Hi Steve,
I hope Jay’s left you a warm seat.
Two years and 16 days agi I wrote an open letter to Jay Spenchian, your predecessor at Saab USA. Jay was welcomed with open arms as his predecessor, Debra Kelly-Ennis was viewed as being about as Saab-savvy as a pepper grinder.
Jay presided over two Saab Owners Conventions. As I understand it he was heckled a little during his keynote speech at the first one. On the video I saw of the second one he was applauded. I really, really hope he makes it to this year’s Saab Owners Convention even though he’s now out of the brand. A lot of us Saabophiles put faith in him as someone who really embraced the brand and what it stood for.
Saab’s in a somewhat better position now than what it was when Jay took the seat. You should thank him and his team for that. The 9-7x has been established and is selling consistently. The 9-2x has been culled. The 9-3 is about to be updated with a new look, XWD and some more power and the 9-5 will receive a whole new life some time after that. Add the coming 9-4x and the future small Saab and you’ve got a lot to play with.
If you hang around long enough.
Steve, the Saab community is one of the most passionate online motoring communities there is. A small brand like Saab doesn’t survive without passionate support. This ain’t Buick, kid.
We all believe that there’s an immense amount of potential in the Saab way of doing things. Your employer does, too, which is why Saab engineers are showing the rest of the GM lads how it’s done with turbocharging and flex fuel right now. That immense potential is yet to be realised in terms of showroom products yet, however.
I’m sure Jan-Willem and Leanne will bring you up to speed in quick time, but it’s official that GM has committed to Saab and building it up for the future. I’ve even got dealers writing in to me to state that this is the case. It’s no false dawn, apparently. There’s products in the pipeline that are going to make Saab a real player in the premium European sector.
I’ll put on my economist’s hat and make an assumption here. I’ll assume that all that’s true (hey, ever hear about the economist stuck on a desert island with only tinned food to eat. He assumed a can opener). If that’s the case then you’ve got quite an exciting time ahead of you.
If you hang around long enough.
The one thing I’m starting to worry about a little is that Saab might be becoming a stepping stone for young executives. You’re 48, which is pretty young for an executive. You’re stepping into a chair in which another young executive has made yet another mark in his career. After helping to rescucitate Cadillac, Jay crafted the Born from Jets campaign. It’s been cited as being one of the most recongnisable automotive advertising campaigns in the US. As Jay’s vocational movement has been descrived to me as a promotion, I can only assume that someone upstairs is happy with his work on BFJ (though two years of sales falls is another thing, but I digress).
Is this your stepping stone, Steve?
Let me get to the point:
Welcome to the family. I hope you have a fruitful and successful time at Saab USA. I hope you kick the living daylights out of your competition with your skills, nouse and quick rapier wit. I hope you preside over a golden era at Saab. I hope I can sit down with you one day and buy you a drink. I hope to race you on the track one day in a pair of Black Turbos (you’ll understand that shortly).
But please forgive me, and us, if we wait and watch, and see you put a score on the board first.
Saab definitely needs bright ideas. Saab will live and die by the quality of it’s product but even if the product’s great someone still has to co-ordinate the marketing and selling of that product. You can rarely have too much youth, exuberance and energy when promoting a promising and developing car brand. But in the next few years, I think they need some stability even more.
Someone who can envision something for the longer term and actually see it to fruition. Someone who can build relationships with dealers, the press, the design people and all the other stakeholders in this business and actually carry those relationships forward.
I keep hearing that the car business is a long-term business. So why do people change jobs in it so often? Is it greed or just sloppy recruiting in the first place? I don’t mean a slight against Jay with that either, it’s just that when you’re a Saab guy, you really hope that they people running the place are Saab guys too.
So I hope that you’re great at your job. I hope you hava a great time doing your job. I hope you see the value in Saab as a brand, as a car to be driven and enjoyed. I hope I can write to you and bug you about Saab stuff in 5 years time. I hope you spend enough time in the job to get to know all the great Saab people out there. I hope you never use the word ‘quirky’. Ever.
Steve, in my open letter to Jay back in 2005, I wrote under five different headings, and I think they’re all still relevant today, so I’ll repeat it verbatim for you below. Maybe it’ll mean something.

So, here’s a few tips. You want to know what the people want? What your typical Saab buyer will look for? OK. Listen up. Read on.
Differentiation – Jay, even the modern Saab enthusiast knows that you’re going to have some constraints placed on model development. There’s going to be some platform sharing etc. It’s a commercial reality. But please, get on the phone to the design team and make sure that this is never obvious from a look at the car. Your average Saab buyer IS an individual. They look at Saabs and see them as thoughtfully designed, practical, stylish and fast. Not 350 cu in fast. Smart fast. They like the aircraft heritage and they like the fact that their car doesn’t look like everyone else’s on the street. They’re not loud about it, but they like it.
Innovation – whether it’s fuel cells, hybrid, whatever….the time is right for another big winner on the Saab innovations list. This is your global premium brand Jay and it needs to hit some home-runs again. Saab survived as a minnow in a whales-only industry for 60 years by doing things first and doing them right. With another oil crisis looming, the time is certainly right for Saab to be seen as a leader here. Don’t let Toyota take all the glory. Somewhere in a warehouse in Trollhattan is an SVC engine. Go look it up.
The hype for the last 3 or 4 years has been SUV’s and small trucks. Big mothers that will tow a house. Everything comes full circle though, Jay. We’re all sitting on the cusp of a new dawn in motoring and Saab should be right there, setting the pace and leading the pack.
Fun – Go check out the bulletin boards Jay. There’s a whole bunch of them where people are mentioning a name from Saab’s past – Sonnet. A smallish, fun sports car. Think Miata with innovation, genuine torquey power and more class. Think entry level for the young professional. Think retired 50-something cruising the coast.
Not just a Sonnet though. All Saabs should be fun to drive and enjoyment comes from fitting the car to a driver’s requirements. Saab have done this for years and you’ve got to allow genuine Saab design to lead the way in this segment.
For the grunt-lovers, there’s got to be some real fun when the pedal hits the metal. All the big boys, the target brands, have a performance moniker. Some might mention Aero to you, Jay, but don’t be fooled. The Aero is a classy car, but we’re talking about a hero vehicle here. The one where the bar is set.
Viggen. (and I wrote this before I owned a Viggen, by the way – SW Apr 07)
And for goodness sakes, make us proud. Rally the thing. Per Eklund is apparently working on his own rally 9-3. Get him in as a rally team manager and let’s whip some Suuby/Mitsu/Toyo/Pug/Citroen butt!!
Quality – well duh!! As obvious as it may seem, quality is key in this segment of the market. There’s a very big target out there for Saab to aim at. Several of them in fact. One wears a blue and white target on its front and back end and the other wears an upside-down peace sign. You’re taking on a bunch of German anal-retentive precision automobiles here, Jay, and it’s going to take a quality finish to beat them. Can Saab compete? Damn it, we can win!
You know things are getting strange when a man quotes himself, but here we go anyway:

I want to see Saabs made by proud Swedes, speeding down the Autobahns with Beamers in tow, their drivers ashen-faced and crying for their mommas!! I want to see Swedish auto workers abuzz with the idea of harnessing all their intelligence and building the best cars they’ve ever dreamed of. I want to see Saabs full of innovation, power and practicality, like they’ve always been, but I also want to see people shouting from the rooftops about how good they are instead of ads that are just as subtle and clever as the cars.

Respect – Saab owners want to be respected for their choice, Jay. We ain’t dumb. And we ain’t ‘quirky’. Do NOT let one of your young execs try to talk you into using the word ‘quirky’. Ever.
GM can best show respect for its customers (read: Saab owners) by continuing to research and build Saabs in the tradition upon which the company was founded. Practicality, Innovation, Power, Comfort, Style.
Don’t disrespect us (we are your family, Jay) by portraying us as idiots. You’ll do that if you produce dumb ads. Yes we are individual, independant free thinking types, but if you use those words straight up, all you’re going to do is interest those that are interested in seeing themselves as individual, independant, free thinking types.
Just. Promote. The. Car.
The smart ones will get there. Trust me on this. Promote the car. You aren’t selling a lifestyle. You’re selling a car. Make sure it’s a great car and then tell people about it. Associating it with a lifestyle is somewhere around step 5. Let’s get Steps 2 and 3 in place first. Be smart about it. Rock it out. Fill ’em up. Get right into people’s faces but….promote the car.
Smart consumers can see the spin. Respect them. Promote the car.