From his high-rise office suite along the banks of the Rio de la Plata, General Motors Argentina President Arturo Elias can look across to Uruguay.
That is where executives of many corporations, including General Motors, fled for safety in 1978 to escape Argentina's economic and political turmoil. Given the difficulties in which Argentina again finds itself, Elias must be tempted to contemplate a similar retreat. Elias, 43, was named president of GM Argentina in February, as the country was mired in another fiscal crisis that began last year.
Brazil's decision to devalue its currency, the real, instantly turned Argentina into a high-cost manufacturing center. Government efforts to keep Argentina's economy on course have led to higher taxes and soaring unemployment, triggering a sales slump for GM and other companies.
GM, which only returned to Argentina in 1994 after a 16-year absence, became one of two dozen manufacturers to close Argentine factories when it shut its Cordoba truck plant, shifting production to Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil. GM's other Argentine plant, in Rosario, is running half empty.
Despite the automaker's predicament, Elias insists GM will not abandon Argentina as his predecessors did 22 years ago. 'There's no question about it in our minds. We're in it for the long haul,' Elias said in April, in his first in-depth interview since being named GM's Argentina chief.
This is the highest-profile job for Elias, a pianist and native of Barranquilla, Colombia, who became a U.S. citizen in 1986. His international career has jumped from engineering positions to finance jobs to country manager posts - just the kind of path that GM wants more of its executives to take as it strives to become more globally minded.
'There has been a significant change in our Automotive Strategy Board toward trying to do a better job of managing the careers of executives,' Elias says.
Just before arriving in Buenos Aires, Elias was the vehicle line executive for GM's Delta small-car program in Europe. Delta provides the underpinnings for the Opel Astra, GM's best-selling car there. Elias was instrumental in the latest version, introduced in 1998. Even more important, he guided development of the Opel Zafira, a compact minivan that has been a hit since its introduction in Europe last year.
Peter Hanenberger, now president of GM's Holden unit in Australia, says Elias' persistence paid off during the project at Opel. 'If there was something to be achieved (that) he believed in, he would hang on your tail unbelievably,' says Hanenberger, who ran the Technical Development Center in Russelsheim, Germany, during Elias' stint there.
Thanks to Elias' diverse resume, 'his analytical skills are sensational, and he picks up things quickly,' Hanenberger says.
As a vehicle line executive, Elias was involved with all steps of development, from early sales forecasts to meeting with suppliers to helping overhaul GM's Bochem, Germany, plant. The Purdue University-schooled engineer headed overseas early. While at Delco Electronics in Kokomo, Indiana, he took an assignment in Singapore that none of his North American-focused colleagues wanted. 'I raised my hand without knowing what I was getting into,' he laughs.
After a series of overseas, finance and engineering posts, in 1996, he was named GM's assistant vehicle line executive for full-sized trucks, a move that led him to the vehicle line executive job, and eventually, Argentina. Because of his background, Argentina's volatility doesn't throw him. He had practice dealing with instability in Mexico, Chile and Venezuela. 'The region has historically been volatile,' he says. 'A lot of the issues you find here are not new to me.'
Slow times at Rosario
Perhaps his biggest challenge will be to prove GM bet correctly on Argentina as a manufacturing site. The 2-year-old Rosario factory is one of five GM built in emerging markets around the world. The factories are fundamentally the same, using lean manufacturing techniques developed at the GM-Toyota venture in Fremont, California, and GM's plant in Eisenach, Germany.
Rosario, which makes three- and five-door versions of GM's Corsa subcompact, is able to produce 85,000 cars a year. Because of the slump, it is limping along at about 43,000. In April, GM added production of the Suzuki Grand Vitara, a move Elias says pays off two ways. GM gets experience building another manufacturer's products, and Japanese partner Suzuki gets a local production site from which to launch its push into Argentina.
Hanenberger says Elias has gained a reputation in GM as a troubleshooter, the primary reason he now is in Argentina. But, says the veteran GM executive, 'I hope he is not used to always fix things - rather, that he is promoted straight to the top.'