Motor City Blogman: Cadillac Chief Robert Ferguson Says ATS Coupe Is On; Europe Gets a Diesel

DETROIT – The Robert Ferguson interview began with a question he had heard all day long. This was his last appointment during a Detroit show press preview day that began with the launch of the production Cadillac ELR at the Detroit auto show.

How did he get this job? Less diplomatically, the question might have been worded, “How in the hell did you go from being General Motors’ chief lobbyist in Washington to vice president for global Cadillac?”

“So, I was in Washington, D.C., the last three years. Our largest shareholder was based there…”

“Still is,” I interject.

“There was a need for a lot of attention. But I have a broad business background. I was president and CEO of the enterprise division that became AT&T. Very large, 12,000 salespeople, multi-billions of dollars in revenue. Very sophisticated customers, such as General Motors. At the time, we had the largest broadband network in the world. My background is really much more than a lobbyist, though I really enjoy public policy. I’ve run large sales organizations.”

After three months in metro Detroit, he’s probably noticed that we – not only local journalists but most of the populace – tend to delineate executives into “car guys” and “non-car guys.”

“I’ve noticed that, yes,” the affable, boyish-looking fifty-three-year-old Missouri native responds, a bit tersely.

Ferguson says he was interested in running Cadillac because, “I think it’s a cool job.” That job, he later reveals, though with great subtlety, includes adding a coupe to the ATS range. He won’t confirm bigger-than-CTS models. Cadillac is scheduled to unveil its Mark III CTS, on a longer-wheelbase version of the ATS’s Alpha rear-drive platform, at the New York International Auto Show this spring.

“Cadillac has a good inventory of products, and restoring the American luxury auto provider into the global luxury space is a very appealing job. The product is good, our dealers are talented and motivated, so … really, I took this job because Ed Whitacre called me and said, ‘This is a great American company and we’ve got to help it succeed.’ ”

Whitacre, the post-bankruptcy GM chairman who replaced Fritz Henderson as CEO in December 2009, hired his former AT&T colleague to be vice president for global public policy in 2010. It was the current chairman and CEO, Dan Akerson, who moved Ferguson to Detroit to become GM vice president for global Cadillac, a new position at the corporation, last October. The U.S. vice president for Cadillac, Don Butler, and Cadillac’s chief engineer, Dave Leone, as well as Cadillac’s design staff report to Ferguson.

Car guys might worry about how much influence Ferguson exerts over design and engineering. So far, Ferguson seems to be concentrating on the same issues raised about Cadillac since even before the GM bankruptcy. Ferguson disabused the rumor that Cadillac will soften its Art & Science design language to help sales in China, where Buick styling has long been the preference.

“The testing shows that our styling does very well in China,” he says. “I think our American luxury styling is a great advantage in China. Not a disadvantage.”

The disquieting part of his response is that GM still relies that heavily on clinics. Clinical research seems to be supporting the question of whether Cadillac will move forward with a Mercedes-Benz S-Class competitor and/or an even more upscale ultra-luxury flagship based on the Ciel concept, though Ferguson was non-committal.

“I can tell you that we’re working hard and looking hard at a full line of Cadillac products. The notion of having a larger Cadillac or a flagship Cadillac is intriguing, and certainly the marketing research says there’s opportunity.”

So why not go ahead and do it? One or both?

“We’re looking hard at it,” Ferguson says, adding the age-old future product cliché, “Stay tuned.”

What about Detroit buzz that has Dan Akerson and company cutting corners on product development in order to raise GM stock value?

“I think there’s a strong commitment to growing Cadillac and the resources will be there to do that,” he says, adding, when pressed harder, “I’m confident there’s an understanding and a strong commitment to that.”

Ferguson didn’t quite hold back on the prospect of adding a coupe model to the ATS sedan. Cadillac showed an ATS coupe concept to journalists way back in 2009.

“Our initial plans for ATS that you describe are still our plans,” he says. “That’s a great car, and we need to have variations of it, and we will.”

The original plans didn’t call for a wagon, which Ferguson dismisses outright, or a convertible built off the notch-roof coupe. Even with the European market in the tank, Cadillac will attempt another assault, including with a new diesel engine based on current engine architecture.

Eventually, after I reveal that I came to Detroit from inside the Beltway myself nearly seventeen years ago, the conversation turns back to Ferguson’s car guy status.

“I love cars. And I’ve always had a fascination for cars. I’m a business guy who’s had a passion for cars.”

Any stand out?

“I’ve loved the CTS-V. I’ve loved it since it came out on the market. I love pony cars. Always thought the Camaro was great. My first car was a Mustang.”

It was a 1976 Ford Mustang II. In Ferguson’s defense, no American car was good by 1976. Anyway, his Mustang II had the 302 V-8.