Gung-ho Chevy chief Peper spread his passion to dealers
Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
One Friday evening in 2005, Chevrolet dealer Duane Paddock was headed to the golf course with his wife for a quick nine holes when his phone rang.
It was Ed Peper, the newly minted general manager of Chevrolet.
"Eddie asked me how business was," recalls Paddock, whose Paddock Chevrolet in Kenmore, N.Y., long has been one of the nation's largest Chevy stores. "Pretty soon his voice started rising."
It wasn't a bitch session but a pep talk, the sort Paddock would get used to over Peper's 41/2 years at the helm of Chevrolet. Peper wanted to know what vehicles were hot, which incentives were clicking, what inventory was running low.
Twenty minutes later Paddock ended the mostly one-sided conversation while sitting in the golf course parking lot. "Who the hell was that?" his wife asked.
"That was the head of Chevrolet," Paddock said. "He's fired up. I love it."
During Peper's stint as head of Chevrolet, from early 2005 to the summer of 2009, there was plenty to get fired up about -- both good and bad.
He presided over some of General Motors' most important launches in decades, such as the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu. Later he had the unenviable task of rallying the troops as dealership-termination letters began circulating and GM slid toward its 2009 bankruptcy.
Peper, now 49, earned a reputation as an impassioned brand leader who always implored dealers to sell more. His monthly sales podcasts became de facto motivational speeches to the dealer body. (Peper's team referred to them as "hostage videos" for their rough quality).
"He was always a cheerleader and great motivator," says Rick Hendrick, founder of Hendrick Automotive Group, the nation's seventh-largest dealership group measured by retail unit sales.
Peper, a 6-foot-5 former college basketball player, is also known for being competitive. In 2005 he challenged dealers to beat the Ford brand in sales for the first time in 19 years. They did it -- and repeated the feat in 2007.
"We rallied around that," says Peper, now general sales manager at Cadillac. "That's one of the things I'm proudest of."
Then there was the debut of Chevy's redesigned Silverado pickup in the fall of 2006. It was launching just before the redesigned Toyota Tundra, which was being touted as the first Toyota pickup capable of challenging the Silverado.
Bill Ludwig, CEO of advertising agency Campbell-Ewald, recalls presenting the campaign concept to Peper and his team. The concept -- "Our Country. Our Truck." -- featured a patriotic song by John Mellencamp with images of American workers toiling in rugged settings dating back to the Dust Bowl.
"I told them: Imagine we're executives sitting in a room at Toyota headquarters in Torrance, California," Ludwig said. "What's the worst thing you could see Chevrolet come out with?"
The unabashed American theme gave Chevrolet a marketing message that Toyota couldn't answer, Ludwig said. Even today, Peper gushes when reflecting on the campaign's success in fending off the Tundra.
"We completely thwarted their launch," he says. Chevy sold 618,257 Silverados in 2007, compared with 196,555 Tundra sales.
But trucks were Chevrolet's comfort zone. The big challenge came in the fall of 2007 with the launch of the redesigned Chevrolet Malibu. GM believed the car could put the brand back on the radar of family-car buyers, who had abandoned Chevrolet for Japanese cars after decades of dowdy Chevy sedans.
'No pressure, Ed'
Peper's boss at the time, former GM North America President Troy Clarke, often referred to it internally as "the most important launch in the history of the company," Peper says.
"No pressure, Ed," Clarke would say.
Peper and his team went big. They matched the roughly $300 million in advertising spent on the Silverado launch the previous year -- unheard of for a GM car at the time. A weeks-long teaser campaign called the Malibu "the car you can't ignore."
A one-day blitz of online ads generated 3.7 million hits on Chevy's Web site, more than tripling the record set a year earlier during the Silverado launch. A spate of TV commercials included spots during the World Series.
Malibu sales shot out of the gate, and the car attracted buyers of Japanese brands for the first time in years. For 2008, the redesigned car's first full year on the market, Malibu sales leapt 39 percent to 178,253.
Next up was the spring 2009 launch of the Camaro, which was returning after a seven-year absence. With the dark cloud of bankruptcy buffeting GM, Peper's team valiantly launched the Camaro on a shoestring. "We just annihilated Mustang, just pounded 'em," Peper boasts.
That's a slight overstatement. After ceding the segment to Ford for so long, the revived Camaro outsold the Mustang most months that year and finished 2009 with sales of 61,648 -- about 5,000 short of Mustang's 12-month tally. The Camaro then outsold the Mustang in 2010.
Still, for a carmaker that went through bankruptcy and emerged with the stigma of a "Government Motors" label, beating the long-established Mustang was an impressive achievement.
It was a strange time, Peper says. GM was in a death spiral just as Chevrolet's products were firing on all cylinders. Peper did his best to bolster dealers' morale.
"We were still pedal to the metal," he said. "'My message was 'Hey, we're GM's No. 1 brand. We're not going anywhere.'"
In July 2009, Peper was moved to his current job at Cadillac in a post-bankruptcy shakeup. But he still wears his Chevrolet passion on his sleeve.
Says Peper: "It's the greatest job anybody could have in the automotive industry. Period."
You can reach Mike Colias at email@example.com.