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A Chunk Of True Grit Named John Rock

Cover Story


John D. Rock is running late. "I had a little crisis this morning," he says, apologizing for the hour-long delay. Another rumor that Mlds is heading for the graveyard? A drop in dealer confidence? Nope. "My dog went hunting without me," he explains.

As with many of the things Rock says, it takes a moment to figure this one out. Seems his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Chain, hopped the fence before Rock could leave for work, forcing Oldsmobile's general manager to search the fields and woods outside his home near Lansing, Mich. Hardly your typical General Motors crisis. But then, Rock is hardly a typical GM executive.

DEEP ROOTS. At 58, Rock may be a grizzled 34-year GM veteran, but unlike many of his peers, he has no qualms about speaking his mind. Take, for instance, 1992, when rumors swirled that top management might shut down Olds. While most GM managers hunkered down behind press-release denials, Rock called a press conference to blast everybody from the media to GM's board. One tidbit: "I'm thinking of going trick-or-treating around the outside directors' houses."

A South Dakota native who grew up working on his father's Chevy-Olds car lot, Rock is proud of his deep GM roots. As he likes to say: "I grew up in a dealership, and I married a dealer's daughter" ( wife Bonnie). In stints in Australia and at GMC Truck, he earned his spurs as a tough cost-cutter. And when he got the Olds job in early 1992, he saw it as an irresistible challenge to make change.

Rock immediately threw out the old rulebook. Dealers, once kept in the dark, now make up half of Olds's new Board of Governance, joining managers to vote on all major decisions. Fridays became Cowboy Day, when staffers wearing cowboy boots could vent their spleen to the boss. "I've been waiting all my life to be king," Rock says, "and when I get there, it's a democracy."

As much as the rumors of Olds's demise angered him, Rock appreciated the shock effect. "There's nothing like the fear of death to give you a little focus," he says. He had been brainstorming with staffers and dealers on Olds's future since he took the job. But without the scare, he says, "maybe we would still be studying and struggling."

PROMPTED. Rock's style of damning past mistakes is beginning to catch on. "It's become fashionable at GM to be like John Rock," says David E. Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. And Rock's staff is learning to cope. When Rock was asked for Aurora's development costs at a press conference last fall, then-Chief Engineer Larry Lyons offered: "He doesn't remember." Thus reminded, Rock added: "I'm not going to tell you how much they blew on the car."

Occasional corporate reminders to curb his profanity don't work. And cussing is just part of the good ol' boy persona. Rock has eased back from his hard-drinking days but still enjoys a Miller with his Tammy Wynette. Buddy Tom Ryan says Rock always has a story about his South Dakota boyhood to liven the hours in search of pheasant or walleye. "He's good company," Ryan says. Good for the company, too, it seems.Kathleen Kerwin in Lansing, Mich.

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