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CAR SALES CHAMP CRUSADES TO RAISE PROFITS FOR GM

Ed Garsten


First comes the mile-wide smile, followed by the warm handshake and then the barrage of bromides like "waterfalls begin with raindrops." The next thing you know, Jim Dollinger has your attention, your trust and finally your money. A six-time national Buick sales champ, the 46-year old father of seven girls has minted a simple philosophy "pay attention and meet customer needs rather than dwell on price" to become a Mr. Fixit of sorts for underachieving dealerships. Now he wants to do the same for the company that builds the cars he sells, General Motors Corp.

Early this year, Dollinger met at the automaker's headquarters with GM North America President Gary Cowger and John Smith, GM's sales and marketing group vice president. After hearing Dollinger's ideas, they offered him $5,000 for the rights to his proposals. He turned it down, saying his ideas are worth much more than five grand. "This is something that's worth billions to the company, billions to the stockholders with no investment," Dollinger said.

Aside from managing hundreds of new car customers, he's been the general manager at Suski Chevrolet Buick in Birch Run, MI for a year now. In 2002, he was hired to fix Williamson Buick in Flint. He promptly changed the name to Patsy Lou Buick "to feminize it" and make the showroom more hospitable to women. Sales increased 60 percent in a year, Dollinger said. His magic is working at Suski Chevrolet Buick. Sales jumped 80 percent in March, 60 percent in April and are on track to improve a whopping 125 percent in May, said new car sales manager Brad Goldman. "He pays a lot of attention to the customer" Goldman said of Dollinger. "He's a go-getter, lights a fire and always pushes us."

Dollinger won't divulge all the specifics of his plan for healing GM, which once dominated with more than 50 percent of the U.S. market but now controls just 27 percent. But he says GM must bolster its image by cutting back and simplifying incentives and refine and enhance its product lines so that more people aspire to own them, remove members of the board of directors who are tied to investment banks, reduce executive compensation and give dealers more autonomy to do their own advertising and marketing.

"Without spending money, without capital investment and by actually lowering costs, I can implement this plan, increase market share, build for profit, reposition for growth and reposition this organization," Dollinger said. He's "an interesting guy" said Suski's Brad Goldman.

Some 100 shareholders are expected to show up for GM's annual meeting, where Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner will outline the company's recent achievements and its goals. Among seven shareholder proposals, one would create an outside chairman independent of the chief executive officer post, eliminate new stock option grants to top management and require GM "significantly reduce" greenhouse emissions from its vehicles by 2013 and 2023.

GM's board of directors has recommended none of the stockholder proposals be approved. For supersalesman Jim Dollinger, however, the only proposals that matter are those he never stops thinking about...returning GM to the days of market dominance and big profits. "I don't hunt, fish or golf," Dollinger said. "I'm a single-minded man of purpose, and I'm here to make a difference."

(The Detroit News June 3, 2004)