One would think Mark Hogan is referring to cars. He sprinkles his conversations with car words; something that 'has traction' is among his favorites. But he's not talking cars. He is talking computers and the Internet.
Last summer, after a career on the car-making side of the business, Hogan shifted gears. The 48-year-old executive took over GM's newly created electronic commerce group, e-GM. His assignment is to build a global network of Internet initiatives, from GM BuyPower Web sites for car buyers to the OnStar in-vehicle communications system.
He did not volunteer for the assignment. 'Like everything else at GM, you don't get a vote. It's the army,' he said. 'I've been in this company 27 years slugging away at the vehicle side. They wanted somebody who is nontraditional in their thinking but knew how to work with the traditional organization.'
Although he is a self-described car guy, Hogan has built a reputation as a nontraditional thinker in GM's traditional businesses. He served as president of GM do Brazil, helping to propel the automaker to a leading position there. In a volatile market such as Brazil, successful executives learn to react quickly to unforeseen events. His career began to soar after GM's famous boardroom coup of 1992, when Jack Smith replaced former CEO Robert Stempel. Hogan was among the small group of lieutenants on whom Smith relied to stem the automaker's financial hemorrhaging.
Before taking over e-GM, Hogan headed GM's North American small-car operations, where his nontraditional thinking proved too much for the United Auto Workers. Hogan's plan was to make GM's small-car plants in North America profitable by using modular assembly of components. That upset the union, which feared a loss of jobs in GM assembly plants. To maintain labor peace, GM backed away from the proposal.
While Hogan seems well suited for his new job, he confesses he's 'out of his league as a car guy' in the computer world. Speed is the most important difference between Hogan's new world and old, and it creates a sense of urgency for e-GM to move fast. Projections by Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consulting company that advised GM on the creation of e-GM, predicts 500,000 new vehicles in North America alone will be sold over the Internet by 2003.
In the last three months of 1999, 80 percent of U.S. car buyers used the Internet for research, Hogan said. That's a higher number than many industry analysts had predicted. 'The landscape is changing even faster than we expected,' Hogan said.
Operating from temporary offices in GM's Argonaut building, once used by engineering legend Charles 'Boss' Kettering, Hogan taps into the expertise of executives from high-tech firms from California's Silicon Valley to Japan to Israel.
Given Hogan's duties, his organization of 160 people seems small. But he has the backing of GM's top management, which he believes is key for companies such as GM that are shooting to be Internet leaders. Moreover, it is easier for a small operation to move quickly - a key attribute in the fast-changing world of the Internet.
While GM takes years to develop a vehicle, Hogan plans to launch his Internet strategy throughout most of the world within the year. 'It's a pretty different world,' he admits. 'I spent the last year thinking about cars and making our plants cleaner. The folks I'm meeting with now don't care what a car is.'