Small, struggling, European premium-car companies that later became big and powerful -- such as BMW and Audi -- did so because single-minded leaders put their careers on the line and stuck around to complete the job.
That theory -- the "great man theory" of automotive history -- holds that General Motors failed to turn Saab into a powerhouse over the past two decades because it didn't allow strong, independent leaders to thrive at its Swedish subsidiary. In some cases, managers sent to run Saab may have been good, and gutsy, but they got pulled back into GM's hierarchy at precisely the wrong times.
The cherry-picking of luxury brands by giant carmakers in the 1980s and 1990s mostly flopped. Now Round 2 is happening, with small players getting the chance. And as Geely takes over Volvo, Tata Motors tries to perk up Jaguar Land Rover and tiny Spyker Cars aims to revive Saab, there is plenty to learn.
Why couldn't the world's largest automaker help one of the world's smallest to succeed? The conventional wisdom is that U.S. executives in the 1990s didn't understand the brand, bungled the product strategy, allowed quality to slip and couldn't settle on a marketing plan.
But the blame went further, say several managers who toiled for Saab in the early years of GM ownership. Many of Saab's staunchest Swedish loyalists -- and GM critics -- actually praise two Americans who took turns as CEO in the 1990s, Dave Herman and Bob Hendry.
The problem, they say, was the way GM rotated executives, leaving the Swedish company with CEOs who could not be farsighted. Beyond that, Saab was forced to share parts and platforms with Opel. And GM was reluctant to fund the expensive task of building a prestige brand.