Remembering the 2007 Saturn Brand Advocate Board Meeting: Charlie and the Saturn 'Factory'

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Its amazing how life sometimes imitates art. Take Roald Dahl's children's book, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," for example. According to the story, candy maker Willy Wonka opened the doors of his mysterious and intriguing plant for a sneak peak at how his workers dream up new types of candy and create the world's best chocolate. The privilege to venture deep inside the walls of the famed chocolate factory was limited to five lucky children who found golden tickets tucked inside the wrappers of Wonka chocolate bars. Inside the plant, Mr. Wonka took this small group of folks on an adventure they wouldn't soon forget. A few weeks ago I had the privilege to attend the Saturn Brand Advocate Board Meeting in Detroit. As I thought about how I wanted to write about my very own Saturn adventure, the story of 'Charlie' kept coming back to me over and over again. Our journey even included a ride in a glass elevator...

The Golden Ticket

A few months ago I received an invitation to join a select group of Saturn enthusiasts in Detroit for a three-day meeting with Saturn management. In all, fifteen people were chosen to receive a 'golden ticket' of sorts, an e-mail inviting them to spend time with Saturn leadership, product specialists, and marketing experts. The purpose of the meeting was for Saturn to show their appreciation for our support of the brand, share information with us, ask us questions, and listen to our feedback. During our stay, I jotted down over eight pages of notes and snapped more than 550 photos (there were about 400 that I could post), documenting:

  • our open and frank discussion with Saturn management
  • tours of various Saturn and GM facilities
  • a test drive of the 2008 Vue and an up-close look at the new Saturn Astra
  • a board meeting with the Saturn executive team

For competitive reasons I can't write about everything that was discussed during our stay (Saturn truly did "pull back the curtain" in many cases), but I will try to capture the spirit of the event with what I hope will be an informative report.

Before I get started, I wanted to express my sincere thanks to Saturn for this unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance to go behind-the-scenes at Saturn and General Motors. It was an honor to attend the event and I cannot say "thank you" enough for the invitation, warm hospitality, and opportunity to meet so many people. It was so nice to finally be able to put faces to the names of folks who are legends in the Saturn community. In addition to SaturnFans.com, also attending the event were representatives from the Central Ohio Saturn Car Club, the Saturn Performance Club, GF Racing, the Nature Coast Saturn Car Club, Saturn Spot, Sixth Sphere, Cheers and Gears, and the Sky Roadster, Sky-Sol, and Aloha Sky clubs. Some insightful owners with no club affiliation also were invited. There was a good cross section of Saturn enthusiasts in attendance – from those involved with the aforementioned websites and car clubs, to long-time, multiple Saturn owners, and even some new, first-time customers. It was obvious that the Saturn team spent many hours planning this well thought out event.

Day One

I left my home Wednesday morning and arrived at Saturn World Headquarters in Detroit, Michigan a little after 1pm. I arrived in style, having been picked up from the airport in a 2008 Vue XE. Scott Horn, CRM/Internet manager for Saturn, kicked off the Brand Advocate meeting later that afternoon at the GM Renaissance Center. Scott thanked us for attending and gave us an overview of what was planned during our stay in Detroit. He introduced some other members of the Saturn team, and led us through a group introduction that let all of us get to know one another a little better.

Jill Lajdziak, Saturn's General Manager, also participated in the introductions and thanked us all for being there. She talked about Saturn's past, present, and future beginning with the S-Series cars. While Saturn is in the midst of a massive change, she explained that the brand's quest to retain its owner base, chase import buyers, enrich its retailer experience, and coddle its customers remains unwavered. "We are most respectful of our three million owners," she proudly told to us. It was clear that Saturn will emphatically do whatever it can to make sure it brings existing owners with them as the company repositions itself in the marketplace.

For those who aren't familiar with Jill's history with Saturn, she's been with the company since the beginning. In 1986, she was one of a small group of people who were part of the team who devised the sales, marketing, and franchise strategies at Saturn. Essentially this team came together to create the brand, long before the first product was developed. This team was separate from group of 99 folks who worked on strategizing Saturn's unique labor and management philosophies. Since its inception, Saturn's focus has been to draw conquest buyers into the General Motors family. This remains their goal today. Jill explained that because of Saturn's demographics, the company is "unbelievably valuable" to the GM. One mistake, she acknowledged in a candid discussion, was probably not growing its portfolio fast enough in the 1990's. Also, she noted that when Saturn did finally start to expand, the vehicles didn't feature a consistent design language. The new Saturn vehicles correct this issue, as demonstrated by the Sky, Aura, and Outlook, and will share common design cues.

Fast forwarding to the 2007 model year, Jill spent some time walking us through Saturn's expanding lineup of exciting and dynamic cars and trucks.

Kicking off the brand's revitalization last year was the Sky roadster. Demand for the Sky was so great that it was completely sold out in its first year of production (incidentally, 60-70% of Sky sales were of the Red Line model). Jill said that the Sky was chosen to lead Saturn's revitalization over the Aura and Outlook because it evoked a "sexy, emotional, and optimistic" sense that would clearly signal change for the brand. Folks on the Saturn team are proud to say that even though lots of stories have been written about Saturn's innovations over the years, before the Sky, no Saturn was featured on the cover of a major automotive publication. It's also interesting to note that by the end of this year, the oldest vehicle in Saturn's lineup will be the Sky. Now that's an amazing transformation!

Shortly after discussing the Sky, Jill talked about how Saturn introduced the 2007 Aura to rave reviews. Impressions of the Aura were so strong that 49 independent journalists selected the Aura as the "2007 North American Car of the Year." Saturn's new ad agency developed a unique and very Saturn-like advertising campaign showing how Saturn was sharing the award with its owners. The commercial was shot in San Francisco and featured real owners accompanied by the Car of the Year trophy. Jill said there are five trophies traveling the country today. Saturn has gotten over 400 requests from owners who want to receive the trophy for a day as part of the promotion.

Late last year, Saturn introduced its 2007 Outlook crossover sport-utility. Like the Aura, the Outlook has received great reviews and is widely regarded as the benchmark in its market segment. We would get a closer look at the Outlook on Thursday when we traveled to Lansing, Michigan for a plant tour.

The next product to be introduced is the all-new 2008 Saturn Vue. Production of the new Vue started Monday, April 16. Shipments from the plant will begin at either the end of April or beginning of May. According to Jill, the Vue has been an "unbelievable horse in our stable." The belt alternator starter (BAS) mild hybrid Green Line model will be available in the fall of 2007. This year's Green Line model captured 8-10% of the business, and Saturn expects to grow those figures with the new model. A two-mode hybrid Vue will go into production during the 2008 calendar year mated to GM's 3.6L V6 powerplant. The two-mode hybrid system will drive a 45% improvement in the Vue's fuel economy. A plug-in Vue Green Line hybrid will be available sometime in the future. Jill noted that Saturn will be a leader in hybrid technology for GM.

The final component in the first phase of the Saturn's renewal will be the arrival of the 2008 Saturn Astra, in late 2007. According to Jill, the Astra will be dynamic and fun to drive, while getting great fuel economy. It will feature a 1.8L 140hp powerplant. The Astra will be loaded with safety features, including a strong steel cage surrounding the passenger compartment, six standard airbags (including pelvic airbags), active head restraints, and collapsible foot pedals. The Astra will be built in Belgium and shipped to North America.

After her introduction and brand overview, we boarded a bus and traveled to the GM Heritage Center museum, for a look back at some of the iconic vehicles from GM's past. The trip to the museum was extra special because it is not open to the public. On display were production and concept cars from the early 1900s to present day, including a number of vehicles that were the "firsts" of their kind off the assembly line. The Heritage Center said there are about 800 vehicles in storage that GM uses for the displays at the museum, but only about 150 to 200 of those vehicles can be featured at one time. GM is constantly changing the vehicles on display, ensuring that if you are ever lucky enough to be invited back a second time, you will never have the exact same experience twice. Jill indicated that some of the memorabilia from the Spring Hill Welcome Center in Tennessee will eventually be featured here. At the Heritage Center we continued our discussion about Saturn. After browsing through the facility we enjoyed an elegant dinner with Saturn management right in the middle of the museum! I was fortunate enough to be seated beside Jill during dinner and had a good time engaging in a lively discussion about Saturn with others at our table. I had a blast!

On our way back to the Renaissance Center we stopped by Saturn of Warren to see the new facade for Saturn's retail stores. The new design features metallic accents in the signage and in various aspects of the store design. The look is decidedly more upscale than the current more industrial-themed design. New exterior accent lighting will add a red glow to the exterior of the building. Future upgrades to the lighting display system will allow facilities to automatically transition through a rainbow of colors that will without a doubt draw attention to the store from those passing by. Inside, changes will build upon those that were dictated by Saturn's RED II retail facility refresh. All stores will feature computers with Internet access to allow prospective customers to research Saturns – as well as comparison shop the competition – while visiting the store.

Day Two

We all gathered early on Thursday and hopped on a bus headed for GM's Lansing Delta Township manufacturing plant. The facility is about two hours from the Renaissance Center. There we would tour the plant to see how General Motors' large crossover sport-utilities – the Saturn Outlook, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave – are built. A variety of folks from Saturn joined us on our trip, and it offered a great opportunity to talk more about Saturn.

We were welcomed to Lansing by plant officials and UAW representatives. When we arrived inside they gave us a brief overview of the plant and reviewed safety instructions before we left for the tour. No cameras were allowed inside. The plant is 2.4 million square feet in size and employs around 3200 team members. Of the 3200 plant workers, about 2940 are UAW Local 602 assembly workers, 230 are stamping workers, and 271 are salaried team members. A pre-production Saturn Outlook was the first vehicle off the assembly line when it opened in May of 2006. The first saleable vehicles were built on November 14, 2006. The plant reached its full line rate around six weeks ago. If sales continue to pickup, a third shift will be added to keep up with the demand.

Lansing was designed using many of the same features that made Saturn's Spring Hill, Tennessee facility famous. It has moving wooden skillets, vehicle platforms that raise and lower to accommodate different sized workers, and a variety of other ergonomic enhancements to help workers more easily assemble the vehicles (i.e. a moving chair that assists with the assembly of the interior). Just as when the Spring Hill plant was constructed, plant engineers pulled the best ideas from GM plants around the world. Lessons learned from Lansing, along with other newer plants, will be applied as GM renovates Spring Hill over the next 18 months.

The Lansing Delta Township plant recently received the Gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. The plant is the only automotive manufacturing plant – as well as the largest facility and the most complex manufacturing site – to ever receive LEED certification. Its one of just 550 buildings worldwide that are LEED certified at any level. One interesting fact about the plant is its painting process. In the paint shop, vehicle bodies are primed not using traditional primer, but instead with an ionized powder. Vehicles are painted with an environmentally-friendly water-based paint. The clear-coat process is fully abated to prevent harmful emissions into the environment. There was an environmental fact sheet pamphlet available to take home that highlighted some of the features of the plant. I will summarize the content of that brochure and will post some of the more interesting "did you know?" facts about the facility separately. This plant is really state-of-the-art.

After the tour we browsed the plant gift shop (everyone needs an Outlook t-shirt, right?), and we enjoyed a very tasty lunch in the plant cafeteria. The folks at the plant handed out posters of the first Outlook being produced in various stages at the plant. It will look great hanging in my garage. Perhaps this poster foreshadows a new vehicle in my future? Back in 2001, I had picked up a poster of the all-new 2002 Vue at the NY auto show when it was first on display. Three years later my wife and I purchased one. With any luck, hopefully we'll be the proud owners of a new Outlook in less than three years.

After lunch we left the plant and headed for Troy, Michigan where we met up with the Saturn Mobile Events Team and trailer. A special display had been setup to let us get an in-depth look at Saturn's crop of vehicles. If you haven't been to one of Saturn's mobile displays, look for it at an event near you. The trailer travels the country with a knowledgeable staff that is able to talk about each of Saturn's vehicles at length. In addition, for our benefit at this conference, Saturn product managers were available to answer questions. Quite often they asked us questions, and listened intently for our feedback about the cars. It was a great opportunity to learn and take lots of pictures of the Sky Red Line, Aura Green Line, Outlook XR, 2008 Vue XR, and Astra XR 3-door and 5-door hatchbacks.

After ogling over the cars on display, we had a chance to test drive a '08 Vue XR on a short loop around town. While we couldn't push the Vue to its limits, we could get a very good sense of its everyday acceleration, ride, and handling characteristics. Unfortunately, at this time I can't comment on my impressions of the 2008's driving dynamics; I will have a full report posted once the corporate embargo is lifted. Like the previous generation Vue, this updated model features lots of storage bins and cup holders. Unlike the previous generation Vue, the '08 includes six airbags and a stability control system. None of the Vues on display featured a sunroof, but a sunroof will be offered as an option later in the production cycle. With product managers onsite I had an opportunity to ask questions about topics that have been discussed in the SaturnFans.com Forums. For instance, there had been some concern by a few folks on the site that the lack of a sunroof may have indicated there were structural issues with the roof of new Vue. After discussing this with Saturn, I can absolutely say this is not the case. The Vue is a solid vehicle. The lack of a sunroof is a temporary manufacturing limitation that will exist only during the startup at the plant; it will be offered as an option sometime in the future.

That evening we returned to the Renaissance Center for a dinner overlooking the southern sky, the Detroit River, and Canada (yes, if you look south you see Canada!). It was an evening of lively discussion and camaraderie.

Day Three

Friday morning began with a board meeting with Saturn's executive management team. Jill and her staff spent the time answering our questions about the direction of the Saturn brand. Some highlights from this discussion were:

  • Only 37 people actually makeup the division of "Saturn" today. The team leverages several thousand GM resources for support with research, engineering, and manufacturing.

  • Saturn will continue to work closely with Opel in developing a joint lineup between the two brands. Opel has corporate goals that are similar to Saturn, and the companies target the same type of customers, albeit on different continents. The vehicles that are product of the collaboration will be safe, fuel efficient, and feature hybrid powertrain technology. The relationship may result in a diesel powertrain for Saturn in North America or the addition of a low displacement line of turbocharged engines (all options are reportedly on the table). Saturn and Opel are in continuous talks about product positioning; the teams are currently working on 2010, 2011, and 2012 products today. The two brands will share ideas and take turns leading the design of vehicles (the corporate lead on a project will usually be based on the brand that sells the greatest volume of a particular vehicle). For instance, when designing the next-generation Astra, Opel may take responsibility for exterior styling and driving dynamics, while Saturn may take the lead on designing the interior of the vehicle. Opel is reportedly also interested in learning how to replicate Saturn's top-rated retail experience.

  • Bryan Nesbitt, former U.S. designer for Chrysler and Chevrolet, is currently the Executive Director of Design leading GM's European studio. According to Lajdziak, Nesbitt is a "raving Saturn fan" and has been excited about the opportunity to pen the latest and future Saturn and Opel vehicles. Since our visit to Detroit, GM announced Nesbitt is being appointed Vice President of Design for North America on June 1.

  • When asked why not just replace Saturn with Opel, Jill said that it was "not the right move, because there's lots of equity in Saturn."

  • Acknowledging that Saturn's current vehicles are not as lightweight and fuel efficient as the S-Series cars from ten years ago, Jill said that the company is actively looking to push mass out of its vehicles, develop base engine efficiencies, as well as utilize hybrid and direct ignition technologies, along with six-speed transmissions. While Saturn couldn't disclose fuel economy numbers for the 2008 Astra, she says we won't be disappointed.

  • There are five ideals that the executive team considers to be essential to Saturn: safety, environmental friendliness, honesty, dynamic styling, and innovation.

  • We talked about the benefits of having "Red Line" variants of Saturn vehicles to attract performance-oriented buyers and a "Green Line" for those who are more environmentally-focused and economy-minded.

  • There was some discussion about the possibility of a Saturn sponsored homecoming or other large owner events.

After the board meeting we traveled in a glass elevator up to the OnStar Command Center at the Renaissance Center for a tour of their facility. We watched a brief video showcasing the features of the service. Inside the command center was a mockup of a vehicle that was used to demonstrate how OnStar works. The actual command center featured a network operations center complete with large maps displaying the location of OnStar-related events (refreshed daily), as well as television screens monitoring weather and latest news around the country. Did you know that every two seconds someone calls OnStar? I didn't.

Sadly, the end of the OnStar tour marked the end of our three day visit with Saturn. We returned to the room where we had met with the Saturn executive team to wrap-up our three day meeting. We reviewed the events that had transpired over the past few days and talked about what each of us had gotten out of the conference. In the end we were all there for one reason: our passion for Saturn. Nowhere was that spirit more evident than as displayed by one of the attendees: Charlie Brown. Long time Saturn fans might not recognize Mr. Brown's face, but they will recognize his leg. His Saturn tattoo was made famous in one of Saturn's brochures in the mid-1990s. He's got tattoos of the 1994 and 1999 homecomings on one leg, and his Florida-based Saturn heart-on-wheels Car Club logo on the other.

While the rest of us didn't necessarily have tattoos touting our enthusiasm for Saturn, the energy and focus exhibited by the group – on behalf of both the Saturn enthusiasts and Saturn management – was infectious and showed how much everyone deeply cared about the brand. It was important for me to attend the Brand Advisory meeting, because as a huge Saturn fan, I have always been curious about the people, processes, and decisions that go on behind the scenes at Saturn. The fact that Saturn wanted my direct feedback was very intriguing to me. I felt like I was becoming part of Saturn's history and influencing its future. Saturn was genuinely interested in hearing our comments. I think the most important thing I took away from the event was that the entire Saturn team truly cares and values the opinions of its customers. Their passion for the Saturn brand and their drive to build even cars and trucks was felt by everyone in attendance.

This event was a dream-come-true for me and was an adventure that I won't ever forget. Thank you Jill and the Saturn team for absolutely spoiling us during our stay in Detroit. I'd like to also thank the folks at Carlson Marketing, the GM Heritage Center, Saturn Signatures, UAW Local 602, the Saturn Mobile Events Team, and everybody else behind the scenes who helped make this experience so special. Thank you all very much for this look inside the Saturn "factory."

A full list of the photos from my trip to Detroit is online here.

This story was originally published on SaturnFans.com on May 13, 2007.

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What is a Spaceframe?

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You may hear longtime Saturn enthusiasts rave about, and then lament the loss of, a steel spaceframe design forming the foundation of their cars. But what actually is a spaceframe?