After being virtually driven out of Europe three years ago, Peter Hanenberger is thriving as chief executive of General Motors' Holden subsidiary in Australia.
The controversial former GM Europe and Opel product development chief was in line to replace American Gary Cowger as head of Opel in mid-1998. But Opel's supervisory board rejected the German engineer, despite the personal recommendation of GM Chairman Jack Smith.
Hanenberger had made too many enemies at Opel. Critics at GM's German subsidiary blamed him for quality and image problems and for loss of market share.
He was also accused of stripping Opel of engineering talent needed for European markets and putting it to work on global projects.
In a power struggle between GM corporate and Opel, Hanenberger was perceived as Detroit's guy.
Hanenberger's demanding management style seemed to add to the friction.
Opel board members signaled GM that when Hanenberger's contract expired in June 1999, they would not offer a renewal. If GM wanted to keep Hanenberger, it would have to find him another job.
So in April 1999, GM appointed Hanenberger chairman and managing director of Holden in Australia - literally the opposite end of the earth from Germany.
It wasn't exactly an exile. Hanenberger had worked for Holden before and had even been popular with the automotive media in Australia. He was Holden's deputy chief engineer from 1976 to 1982. He was credited with introducing European standards in ride and handling that transformed the fortunes of first the Holden Kingswood and later the Opel-based Holden Commodore in 1979.
But how would Holden employees react to Hanenberger's appointment? Would they welcome the return of the engineer who was once dubbed 'Mr. Handling-berger' by the Australian motor press? Or would they see a GM corporate overseer sent to them in disgrace after being run out of Germany?
Indeed, Hanenberger has rebounded nicely from his public humiliation in Europe. Since his arrival, Holden's market share has bounced back to No. 1 at the expense of Toyota and Ford. Holden has one of the highest rates of return on investment of any GM operation.
Challenging, not autocratic
Hanenberger, 60, doesn't talk much about his controversial last days at Opel. But at Holden, he says that he tries to be challenging without being autocratic.
'We have to keep running to stay ahead. As soon as you fall into a comfort zone you are in danger,' Hanenberger said. 'The beauty of this organization is that Holden people accept these kinds of challenges and demands.'
In retrospect, the situations Hanenberger faced at Opel and Holden were far different.
Opel was losing market share and suffering financial losses. And after a career mostly at Opel, Hanenberger was moved to GM International in Zurich as part of a GM effort to de-emphasize the German influence in GM's European operations.
By contrast, Hanenberger's predecessors at Holden left him with a pipeline full of exciting new models. He also took over at low ebb in Holden's Australian market share.
When Hanenberger arrived in Australia in June 1999, Holden's market share was 16.8 percent, Toyota's 24.7 percent and Ford's 15.2 percent.
Two years later Holden achieved 23.1 percent, Toyota 18 percent and Ford 14.8 percent. Holden's goal for the full year is a 25 percent share based on more new model introductions.
The Holden Commodore remains the top-selling car in Australia and represents 63 percent of Holden's volume. This year Holden will sell about 100,000 Commodores and export another 32,000, most going to the Middle East as Chevrolet Luminas.
The Commodore comes in sedan, wagon and sport-utility bodies, plus a long-wheelbase luxury version. But Hanenberger wants to add more Commodore derivatives to boost volume to 180,000 units a year.
First is a Commodore coupe called the Monaro that goes on sale this month. Hanenberger unveiled the model at the Australian auto show in 1999.
Hanenberger inherited the Monaro, but that didn't diminish his enthusiasm for the project. He built excitement with his dynamic presentation and his push to follow it up with a four-wheel-drive station wagon based on the Commodore.
Melbourne engine plant
Hanenberger was praised when he won Detroit approval for the four-wheel-drive Commodore station wagon. It will be the first Australian-built product in a segment that accounts for annual sales of 115,000 units out of a total market of about 750,000.
With Holden's 2000 profit of $A237 million (E127.9 million), up from $A135 in 1999, the company will finance the project internally.
Hanenberger was the prime mover in securing GM investment for a new engine plant in Melbourne. It will build V-6 and V-8 engines for Holden and export engines to Europe. With the plant, Holden becomes a self-contained business unit that can design, engineer and build complete cars.
As Holden has grown, so have Hanenberger's responsibilities. Besides his titles of Holden CEO and GM group vice president, Hanenberger last year added responsibility for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) trade group. He also is president of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, a link between the auto industry and the Australian government.
But Hanenberger's management style remains demanding.
'We have a stretch culture at Holden,' Hanenberger said. 'We have to broaden our boundaries and expand our product portfolio from the Commodore platform.'
His speech also can be blunt. 'This is a small market operating in a very volatile climate,' he said. 'I don't want to rely on the wrong product like some of our competitors are doing.'