Edward H. Mertz, doyen of the Tri-Shield.
Over the years the hair may have lightened, thinned somewhat but his passion remained strong. Edward H. Mertz (1937-2020) took over Buick’s tiller in 1987, steering GM’s original brand for just over a decade. Helping usher in front wheel drive, wanting to make the right impression whilst reserving the typical, reservist, conservative Buick buyer, Mertz immersed himself into the role with a smile as confident as his policies, including better relations between the company and their dealers.
Mertz could be found in his office, alighting a tri-shield, the 19th hole or the affectionately named War Room where ideas and designs were thrashed out for his pre-recorded dealer-eyes-only Curbside Chats. Averaging every five weeks, he hosted sixty six episodes of around thirty minutes length (in total approximately a working week, 35 or so hours) all recorded to VCR tape and posted out to the three thousand stateside dealers. That, in itself is commitment.
Encouraging dealers to send in pre-paid cards with comments, Mertz was proactive in engendering all round good relations: look after customers, encourage agitated debate, constantly improve the product and sell more Buicks. Pity the poor souls employed to draw up the A1 size idiot boards full of graphs relating to sales forecasts, costings or price comparisons with rivals. But while some of the early episodes appear almost amateurish and off the cuff, those later into Mertz steerage link seamlessly from one subject to the next.
From the off, Mertz is determined to improve quality for such a premium machine. Combined daily Buick sales ran at some 2,200 for early 1988 with the Regal the big seller. He sets out forecasts with actual data, legible on those black on white cards, encouraging sales staff with, at one point incentives of up to $500 per car. February’s Chat sees Mertz ecstatic with actual sales over those forecast: 51,347 over 41,200. “Keep this up. It improves our finances, extends our research and gets more of our cars out there.” Buick’s market share as of 1988 was 5.5%.
One episode sees Mertz briefly showing a photograph of Lee Iacocca examining the new Reatta at a show, more of this car later. He is keen to show the power of the printed press with favourable, if realistic reviews of the brand’s cars. His demeanour positively drips with enthusiasm for his products but reserves some optimistic caution over improvements, the very thing these chats encouraged. But his opinions on the port holes is lukewarm.
Dealers the length and breadth of North America, probably keen to hear their name but frequently containing pertinent details sent in hundreds of these cards, asking Mertz’s advice, grumbling and even praising the firm. Many deal with poor quality items or lack of stock, asking why changes to trim or colour take so long, where’s my cheque for my record sales, when will leather trim be available on wagons and what’s coming next?
The relationship between manufacturer and dealer appears contrived, something which Mertz dealt with aplomb. One dealer, having asked where his LeSabre was – Mertz takes hold of a printout, explaining the date of order, manufacture, trim level and delivery date, looks straight into the camera and confidently explains it’ll be “with you in Iowa next Tuesday.” One wonders if that were true.
In those innocent pre-Internet days, these videos along with all manner of sales information updates, pricing changes, finance offers, etc were posted to the dealers. Mertz saw these chats as a much needed window on the manufacturing front. In another chat, assisted by yet more boards, he patiently explains the 120 week development process a new colour takes.
Hues spent a full year in the Florida sunshine alongside laboratory tests. Chip and acid rain resistance is measured, repair techniques, paint consistency. He continues with a lucid understanding of what colours sell where; southern states preferring lighter shades, colder more northern areas liking the standard black, white, maroon or navy. Interiors of dark antelope (tan) for the north, lighter beige for the south. With exceptions.
Mertz points out that across GM’s siblings, research continues apace but Buick alone at that time had a bewildering array of items requiring colour matching. 79 different carpets, 44 vinyl coverings, 40 seat covers, 25 plastic trims. Include headliners, seat belts and more, totalling 220 parts. He appears genuinely sorry for the delays.
A later episode sees the introduction (after that month’s sales figures) of the unblinking Comptroller R.L. (Dick) Payne. This guy’s statistics on potential cost savings over rivals must have had salesmen teaching for their calculators, Valium or nearest sanatorium – possibly all three at once. Charismatic on screen Mr Payne was not.
Mertz oozed natural flair as one would expect of his position. Characterfully segueing the mention of the new Reatta in Playboy magazine with such as Corvettes, Germany’s wares and even a Rolls-Royce having been part-exchanged for their latest baby in one easy move, he expertly glides onto healthy communication encourages sales. “Happy Buick customers tell up to eight of their friends – free advertising for us! Whereas unhappy people tell more. Get those friends test driving a Reatta today!” All this information is at the touch of a screen today – thirty years ago, hard earned.
Sorting out noisy fuel pumps, wonky wheel covers, Le Sabre availability, Electra’s uncomfortable rear seats, Regal’s colour changes and those all important incentive issues, Mertz needed time but achieved results. One customer’s letter was shown (with shocking pictures) praising the Park Avenue’s robustness in a front end accident where his wife’s ankle was broken pressing the brake pedal. Mertz explains they’re working on “improving that side o’ things.”
For his sixty sixth and final Curbside Chat, Mertz steers the new for ‘97 Regal through a brick wall onto stage then handing over to his successor, Bob Coleta. His final scene revealing GM’s new headquarters, the Renaissance Centre in Detroit. Ed Mertz smile, easy going nature combined with endless enthusiasm for his Buicks, his retirement left GM’s original brand in good stead. One suspects there’d be many more Dear Ed cards, via email, today.
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8 thoughts on “Dear Ed”
Good morning Andrew. I suppose it is easy to be cynical about these ‘Curbside Chats’, given the scope for editing both the incoming questions and the video of the meeting itself, but credit to Mertz for trying to establish a direct line of communication with the front line and hear the dealers’ concerns directly.
Too often in corporate hierarchies, chief executives are ‘protected’ from hearing inconvenient truths by their senior management team and PAs. Officially, this is to stop the CEO getting bogged down in detail issues but often it’s simply that those managers are protecting their own reputations and backsides.
Another great read Andrew, thank you. I liked his pioneering approach to keeping in touch with his dealers, via a VHS tape, brilliant. I wonder how many manufacturers do anything similar these days, I doubt very many, even with Zoom and Teams meetings 🤣
Thanks for another excellent article, Andrew. It’s good to have an insight on how things were managed back in those days. Like Tim I doubt that many manufacturers will keep in touch with the dealer network even though the possibilities to do so have improved greatly.
Mertz may have been the essential difference between Buick’s continuation and Oldsmobile’s cancellation.
I wonder how many people considered Volvos and Buicks when buying there 1990s saloon? The LeSabre looks like something the 740 buyer might also like. As a coupé it could be seen as a subsitute for the rare and expensive 780ES. I quite like it in its own right. The Park Avenue of this period was a charming car – quite unlike other similarly priced vehicle from inside and outside GM. The difference isn´t any one thing but in the synthesis of characteristics. Oldsmobile was really handicapped in regard to product differentiation in this period though they also had some decent products. Were they supposed to be more “modern” than Buick (making Buick seem staid) or cheaper than Buick (making Buick seem bad value) or better than Chevrolet (making Chevrolet seem cheap). Or what? I wonder if anyone really believed the five-way split in GM car lines was anything other than a fiction to justify an inherited set of brands whose dealers needed to be pleased?
All of that, Richard. Except that Volvo buyers were a completely different demographic than Buick/Oldsmobile buyers.
Oldsmobile was indeed handicapped during this period because its mission had been constantly shifting since the 1960’s. In the 1990’s, Olds general manager John Rock attempted to reboot the division* while the detritus of formerly successful legacy models along with a cadre of badge-engineered lineup filler was still hanging around. [Below: Çeci n’est pas une Buick LeSabre.]
* The most interesting spearhead of this effort, as you’ve already related: https://driventowrite.com/2015/01/08/aerodynamics-oldsmobile-aurora/
I’ve never fully understood where Oldsmobile sat in the GM hierarchy. Would it be fair to say, in MG Rover terms, Oldsmobile was MG to Buick’s Rover? In other words, Buick was comfort-orientated style Oldsmobile had a sporting bias, but both were similarly priced?
Pontiac had the task of being sporting, I thought.
Olds´ existence must have been due to historical factors and the fact that a price-ladder of GM products could conceal the brand´s lack of a direct place. It would be a PhD-like task to reconstruct the GM cars pricing scale from cheapest possible to most expensive possible. What would it reveal? I expect it would reveal overlap on pricing and features.
Conceivably Olds remained for the simple reason that providing the cars offered more choice and crowded out competitors. Maybe Olds existed to appeal to people who might have bought some other non-GM brand like Mercury or Plymouth rather than having an inherent desirability of its own. GM had huge market share at one point and so even an also-ran like Olds could chalk up 750,000 with a dud. In the 1980s the best-selling car in in the US was an Olds Cutlass something-or-other. This was probably due to Olds landing on the sweet spot of pricing and other characteristics (like the European Golf). How quickly it fell off its perch. Curiously, this happened after they decided Olds would become an import-fighter.