Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Saab 340 coming to Northern Ontario

In the 1980’s when I started with Saab, there was that unique and current connection between Saab automobiles, Saab aircraft and Scania trucks and busses. Then things got broken up and only the Saab name and country of origin were shared. Still, beyond the Saab fighter jets with sexy names, the airplane I most identify with Saab is the 340. They were somewhat distinctive, and their turbo-prop engines seemed anachronistic for our time in planes of that size, 30-36 seats.

I noted, whenever flying, that when reading the airline magazines, which all listed the planes they had in service in the last pages, that the 340 had disappeared from view, at least areas that I traveled. Having gone out of production in the late 1990s, and where I had read that 340s were starting to pile up in aviation grave yards, I was surprised to see an article today in , which services Thunder Bay and Northern Ontario, that Bearskin Airlines is adding a 34 seat 340 to their fleet, and plans a second for the fall. Nice to see the 340 again!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

If we don’t want automobiles which are just appliances, what do we want our appliances to be?

appliance b. an instrument or device designed for a particular use; specif: a household or office device. (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, c. 1977)

Those who have a passion for cars and driving will often cast aspersions on certain cars as being “appliances” and nothing more. For some drivers, there could be nothing better than such a car. They want to get in their car, turn the key (or push a button) and then arrive at their destination with as little fuss or contemplative input as possible. I was reminded of such a car this past weekend when I was teaching at In Control, where I had to pick up one of their Camrys and drive it to Otis AFB on Cape Cod where we had a full schedule of teaching Saturday and Sunday, and then drive it back to North Andover on Sunday night. That’s a lot of time spent in a Camry.

The Camry has to be the poster child for the appliance automobile. The ones we use at In Control are basic CE models. They are well equipped—six speed automatic, traction and stability control, OK sound system, reasonably good seats and so on. They function well for our class—acceleration is brisk enough, braking is strong, ride and handling are balanced, and while prone to under-steer, we’ve all learned how get the tail end rather loose on demand. In the end, these cars are so forgettable because they don’t offend you in any way, nor do they elicit any sort of aesthetic or visceral joy. None. Again, for some people, that’s perfect. For me, it will never do.

So if we don’t want to have cars to be just appliances, what do we expect our appliances to be?

We moved to a new house, hopefully the last stop of our lifetime, last year. While I wish I was substantial enough to have specified Viking this and Sub-Zero that when outfitting our kitchen, since we all love to cook (and eat), those units weren’t quite in the budget. Still, I did not want to take the “contractor package” that the house came with. So we went out and had some fun looking for appliances. There were only a few restrictions—refrigerator had to be cabinet depth, and the stove had to be gas and convection. Here’s what we should have done—gone to Sears and said, “Give us some appliances.”

But no, that wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted some cool factor in my appliances. In the end, we decided to get all one brand—stove, fridge, dishwasher, micro/hood, washer and drier. Being a new house, we liked the idea that everything in the kitchen would match. We had had a few better quality brands in previous homes, and especially liked our washer and drier. So we went to that brand, which shall go nameless, but let’s just say that said brand might also produce lots of parts found in a Saab. The specs were all great, they looked cool, they matched and we were very excited to have them. At least at first.

Our first problem came when the microwave could not be installed with our stylish staggered cabinets because the venting could not be adapted. So, we had to switch brands. So much for everything matching. At least it was a swell new micro, and included a convection oven. Then in October, a catastrophic failure in the refrigerator flooded our kitchen and basement and required the complete removal and replacement of floors, walls and cabinets (and the granite counters which could not be removed in one piece). We got our kitchen refit, finally, just before Christmas. Then the stove started getting funny. Occasionally, the flames were out of control on the stove top. Then the convection oven stopped convecting. Two service visits later, no improvement. While the manufacturer would not authorize replacement, the retailer, Appliance Warehouse of Seabrook, NH, stepped up and replaced the stove. The owner encouraged us to take another brand, if we would like. We did. I now have a lovely Electrolux stove and it is fine. It doesn’t match the dishwasher or refrigerator, but it doesn’t scorch my pans, drop its oven temperature or fail to engage the convection fan. It’s not as sexy as my previous stove, but it’s still sort of cool. Looking back, I should have stuck with really boring appliances. I’ve cooked plenty of great meals with unremarkable appliances, so why did I feel the need to do anything more?

That brings us back to cars. If we are committed to no appliance cars, how much “character flaw” are we willing to tolerate in the cars we love? There was a time when one had to forego reliability to get character, but that was long ago. Today’s Saabs are extremely reliable and as robust as ever. In fact, we’ve yet to see a NG 9-5 in for any sort of service problems. Remember the old tag line? “We don’t make compromises. We make Saabs.” Today, that is truer than ever.

Friday, March 18, 2011

If a Tree Falls in the Woods and Nobody Hears it……

In the past week, Steven Wade, aka Swade, of passed the baton to new ownership of his venerable blog as he has moved on to work in interactive media for Saab. The new group has carried on his tradition of providing interesting insights, and all the latest and greatest news from Saab. Recent weeks, at least since the start of the Geneva Autoshow, have been chock full of news from Saab. Today’s big announcements included a good showing by Saab in the US JD Power quality survey, and premium auto component builder ZF (pronounced zed-eff) has entered into a contract with Saab to build subframe and axle assemblies near Trollhattan.

While this may not all be earth-shattering, it is news worthy, and if the Saab cognoscenti are interested in this, so should those who work at Saab dealerships. I am. That’s why I am in the habit of reading Saabsunited and refreshing the page several times a day. However, not every employee here or at other dealers has the time to do this. The one site we do visit and stay on all day is SCNA site called IRIS, where we transact all our business with Saab, and where we derive all our information on service, sales, parts and training. Beyond that, there is a “What’s New” page which will often give news about comings and goings at the company, relay information that’s been in the news about Saab and so on.

I’ve been astounded since the Geneva show that there hasn’t been a single post except to announce the Saab Banner Builder and Story of Saab on Facebook. No mention of the Geneva show and its PhoeniX, 9-5 Combi debut or iQon infotainment system. No mention of Swade leaving Saabsunited to work for Saab. Maybe we all don’t need to be conversant in the ZF deal, but could you imagine a customer coming in and striking up a conversation about Jason Castriota’s PhoeniX being met with a blank stare?

Beyond providing knowledge for the sake of maintaining an educated dealer network, Saab dealers need to maintain their optimism as the brand is being rebuilt. What better way for Saab to trumpet their progress than to post it on the site that all dealerships and almost all their personnel look at daily?! Building our excitement is key in building excitement for Saab owners and prospective buyers. In fact, wouldn’t it be cool if as part of the greater Saab family we heard these things BEFORE the public did.

I’ll get my information, whether Saab puts it on IRIS or not. I just think that Saab needs to recognize what their omission of communication symbolizes to those of us working the trenches. It’s not endearing.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Monster Fiesta a FrankenSaab

There was a time, especially in Detroit, when you could almost imagine that cars were manufactured in their entirety on location, that raw material went in one end of a giant factory, and complete vehicles popped out the other end. As Saab owners, I think that we understand that automobiles are amalgams of parts made from a variety of sources. We’ve had Saabs with Triumph engines, Ford engines, gearboxes from ZF and Aisin Warner, audio from Clarion and Panasonic and so on.

These days, shared components among manufacturers and partnering in component development is no big news, which brings us to a car driven by Ken Block. Ken Block, founder of DC Shoes, skateboarder / snow boarder / moto-cross racer and now rally driver and gymkhana guru, switched his ride in the last few years from Subaru to a Ford Fiesta. He can been seen racing stateside in Rally America events, including the New England Forest Rally, as well as in some stages of the World Rally Championship series in locales around the globe. did a pictorial piece on Block’s gymkhana Fiesta. The build is amazing, as one might expect. Of course, beyond the Ford Duratec engine and Fiesta chassis, there’s not much Ford about this car. The biggest surprise is the engine management—it comes from Saab! The article doesn’t specify which Trionic version, but it wasn’t too surprising since the car was built in Sweden (probably by a bunch who drive Saabs). Good to see a bit of Saab DNA find its way into such a great car. And it's not just any old DNA--this is a brain transplant!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Ten Years

I started working in the automobile business in February, 1984 at Porter Chevrolet-Honda-Saab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Initially I sold Chevrolets. By May, I was also permitted to sell Saabs after tutoring by Saab’s Ralph Skinder. My first Saab sale came later that month when I sold my first, a four door 900T automatic in Cherry Red. I would go on be the best Saab salesperson that year at Porter, often selling more than our monthly allotment of cars (and, I would add, at full sticker price plus accessories and options).

I was a victim of my own success. Because of the numbers I had put up, I believe, management changed the pay plan on Saabs, and I promptly quit my position. I had been offered a job selling Toyotas, right here in Watertown after a rather brutal negotiation on a Corolla GT I was trying to buy—we ended up buying a CRX at Porter Honda, where my wife worked. Still, I had impressed the folks at Toyota enough that they offered me a position. When the pay plan change was announced, I gave my notice. When the service manager at Porter, Paul Carter (now a technician here at CRS) heard I was leaving, he convinced me to stay at Porter and to become a service advisor. Second best move I ever made. I was an OK salesperson. I turned out to be a really good service advisor.

In 1989, with Porter having sold its Saab franchise in 1988, I was recruited to work at Charles River Saab and took the position as service advisor. That was the best move I ever made. It’s hard to believe now that it took me more than a week to accept the offer. I continued my work here at Charles River Saab as service advisor until about 2000, when service manager, Tim Martino, pulled me off the service desk and had me functioning as his assistant.

I was happy with the change, and it was a pleasure to be relieved of the daily pressure of working a service desk. I will contend that being a service advisor is far and away the hardest job at any dealership, and the most important. Tim set me up doing a lot of the routine clerical work which any manager must perform. Then he set me to working on various projects, including the very first Swedish Car Day. I think that what he was really doing was grooming me for succession, as he was likely looking to make a change himself, having spent twelve years at CRS, eight of them as the manager. (When Tim was hired as manager in 1993, I was the other finalist for the position. In retrospect, I am so happy that Tim got the position rather than me at that time. I learned a lot from Tim, both from his time as an advisor and as a manager—the guy is brilliant.)

In early 2001, Tim gave his notice. He was going to work at a BMW-Mercedes-Bentley dealer, and he lobbied hard to have me be the next service manager. Thus, on March 1, 2001, ten years ago, this cellist became the service manager at Charles River Saab. As is often the case with such reflection, there are times when it does seem I started yesterday, and at other times it seems a hundred years ago, not ten. My, how the world, Saab and this store have changed.

We still live in the wake of September 11. That event carries its own set of stories which I’ll recount later in the year. The wars, changes in travel, the economy et cetera have all been affected by the fallout of that morning. The effects certainly reverberated throughout the industry and this store.

For Saab, this has been a decade of slow decline. Part of this is clearly as a result of GM’s stewardship, misguided and indifferent as it often was. Our business model was also affected by the fact that cars broke down less and required less maintenance. That, however, coupled with ever declining sales, meant that we had to rethink our paradigm. Thus, on the brink of the pan-economic collapse of 2008, we had already reconsidered our business strategy and started reconstituting this store and my department. Much of this has been painful. We have had to part company with lots of great people, and to their credit, to a person they were gracious as I relieved them of their duties here. Fortunately, we are left with a lean crew which is outstanding in every facet. I am truly blessed to have outstanding management at the helm to guide me, and a tremendously gifted and loyal staff to do my bidding.

It has been holding together this team which has meant the most to me during these years. I have much to be proud of with respect to the events we have pulled off over the years: eleven Swedish Car Days; innumerable Advanced Driver Training dates; clinics galore; celebrations; rallies; a harbor cruise! All of that pales, though, next to the notion of maintaining such a dedicated and talented group of employees, without whom I am nothing.

So here’s to the first ten years. My thanks to Tim Martino for having been my mentor during his tenure and beyond. Thanks also go out to General Manager Dan Leahy, who showed me how to manage effectively in difficult times. I look forward to the next ten, and hope to enjoy the challenge of an ascending Saab.