"It took me about 15 seconds to decide," says Mark LaNeve of the offer to become general manager of GM's Cadillac Division. "I told (GM vice president) Ron Zarella I was the easiest guy he ever recruited." Angus MacKenzie interviews Mark LaNeve for just-auto.

Once a Cadillac man, always a Cadillac man, it seems... Mark LaNeve spent 14 years with GM's luxury division before moving to Pontiac in1995 and then making the leap to Volvo in 1997. He was tempted back to the brand that once styled itself "The Standard of the World" last May after Zarella outlined GM's ambitious plans to make Cadillac a global player in the premium car segment.

"Cadillac was in my blood," says Pennsylvania born LaNeve. "I knew a lot of the people there and a lot of the dealers. I grew up there. So for me it was a personal thing, and an unbelievable opportunity. I think it's paramount we have an American carmaker among the world's great brands."

LaNeve will steer Cadillac through one of the most critical periods in its history. Having tracked the relentless rise in global volume and profitability of premium brands such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW, seen the success of Japanese with their upscale Lexus and Acura models in the US, and watched as arch-rival Ford assembled Jaguar, Aston Martin, Volvo, Land Rover and Lincoln into its flagship Premier Automotive Group, GM now wants a piece of the premium market. A faded icon of American luxury, Cadillac is to be reborn as a global premium brand with bold, state-of-the-moment styling and leading edge technology.

The Cadillac XLR
The Cadillac 2003 CTS

In the next three years GM will launch four new Cadillac models aimed specifically at European and Asian buyers - and those Americans who might otherwise choose a BMW or a Lexus. Five years ago this would have been dismissed as mere marketing hokum. But the new Cadillac CTS unveiled at Frankfurt suggests GM is serious this time.

The CTS is the first proper Cadillac in 50 years to be offered with a manual transmission. The first with styling inspired by a British designer. And the first to have been developed on the legendary Nurburgring Nordschleife alongside Benzes and BMWs. The result, says LaNeve, is a car with the performance, design and handling to make it a credible alternative to the European premium car mainstream.

The CTS is the first of what LaNeve is calling Cadillac's "global core products" - all to be built on variants of GM's new Sigma global rear drive platform. The CTS will be joined in the fourth quarter of 2002 by the XLR roadster, essentially a production version of Evoq concept car first seen at the 1999 Detroit Show. A production version of the Vizon crossover concept unveiled at this year's Detroit Show is due in the second quarter of 2003, and an all-new STS will appear 2004.

Cadillac won't be abandoning its conservative and highly profitable heartland, however. The full-size De Ville sedan, and the truck-based Escalade SUVs will continue to be produced, but only for the North American market.

Insiders concede Cadillac has a strong image outside America. The problem is, they say, it's 40 years out of date. At home, Cadillac's reputation with car buyers under 50 has been tarnished by a string of poorly built and conceived products during the 70s and 80s.

Against this background Mark LaNeve concedes the new "global" Cadillacs are far from peripheral to the division's future. "American consumers need to know Cadillac can be a viable, credible competitor in Europe and Japan," he says. "It helps the image in the US if we can sell cars outside the US. But I also think you get a better products if you're meeting the needs of an international standard. European customers are more discerning at least in terms of engine and chassis technology, and fit and finish, so that makes us become more competitive."

So how will Cadillac be positioned among European consumers? "We're going to be competitive of quality, performance and price," says LaNeve, "but we're going to be bold and breakthrough on design and technology. We already have the luxury DNA - Cadillac is known as a luxury brand. We need to get back to our heritage, when we led with design and technology."

Strategic Review-

General Motors

LaNeve is cautious on volume assumptions, however, suggesting the division's short term goal in Europe is to double sales to a modest 3,000 units next year. The mid-term stretch target is three times that. "Today 98 per cent of our sales are domestic market," admits LaNeve. "Five years from now I'd like to see us doing 10 to 15 per cent outside North America. That's about 20,000 units a year, with 8,000 to 10,000 a year in Europe."

Underpinning those numbers is a plan announced at the Frankfurt Show to fold Cadillac into the European Saab dealer network. Although details of the plan are still being finalised, LaNeve says it will give the Cadillac brand a much higher profile and a competitive distribution network. "We think the move to leverage the Saab organisation and Saab dealerships is a good step to giving us a very viable European retail distribution network."

LaNeve's prime aim is to make Cadillac a credible brand in Europe. "Whether we can become great in Europe, or a volume leader, remains to be seen," he says candidly. "We would have to go into segments that are beyond what we're planning - smaller than the CTS, for example, and while that might make sense for BMW, I'm not sure it would make sense for Cadillac, because there are other brands in GM's portfolio - like Saab - to consider."

He also believes the success of the European premium brands in the US has created a fresh opportunity for Cadillac at home with cars like the CTS. "Mercedes and BMW have come so far downmarket in pricing and lease prices in the US they are becoming somewhat pervasive," he says. "We are getting people in focus groups saying they don't want a BMW because everyone else has one. So they're trying Audi and Volvo. And hopefully, they're going to try Cadillac."


To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

Automotive regional report: North America (download)

The world's car manufacturers: A financial and operating review (download)