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August 11, 2006

Jill Lajdziak Growing up in a family business

Passion for cars drives Brillion native’s success at Saturn By Larry Avila
Post-Crescent business editor


If Jill Lajdziak overhears someone talking about cars, she may just jump into the conversation.

“I’ve just always loved being around them,” said Lajdziak, a Brillion native, whose father, Harold Jentink, owned and operated Jentink Chevrolet Oldsmobile in Brillion between 1943 and 1989. “There was always something new about them and it was great always being around that excitement when people would buy a new car.”

It’s those kinds of childhood memories that help Lajdziak, 49, focus on building the Saturn brand of General Motors. As the division’s general manager, she is responsible for directing the company’s growth as well as managing sales, marketing and overseeing support services for 440 Saturn retail stores across the United States.

Lajdziak, who has led the Saturn company since 1999, couldn’t imagine doing any other job.

“There’s just something about the retail car business,” she said. “I have a passion for it.”

Jentink is proud of his daughter’s accomplishments.

“Over the last few years, I’ve been very excited about her career with GM and Saturn,” he said. “She always enjoyed working with people and was great at maintaining a good relationship with customers as she collected on our outstanding accounts.”

Lajdziak worked as an accounts receivable manger for her father and seemed destined to follow in her father’s footsteps.
However, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1979, she wanted to set her own career path.

“I wanted to get involved in the corporate side of the business,” she said. “I pursued a marketing degree because I wanted to see if I could make a difference on a national level.”

 

Building a career
Lajdziak said that early in her career she ran into few female automotive executives.

“Growing up in a retail car environment helped me to understand the business, so the transition was easy for me at the time, which helped me to really excel in the business,” Lajdziak said.

She also credits her Wisconsin upbringing for her career success.
“I’m very proud to have grown up in Wisconsin,” she said. “As I travel across the country, everyone always says they love doing business in Wisconsin because of the people’s work ethics and values. I’m proud to be associated with that and think it has contributed to my personal success over time.”

Lajdziak’s first job out of college was as a district sales manager for the Chevrolet Motor Division. By 1983, she was named metro district sales manager for Chevrolet, then a year later became assistant manager for merchandising for General Motors.

Lajdziak joined the Saturn division in 1986, a year after GM began formulating how to build its then newest brand. She held a variety of executive positions with Saturn before eventually landing the company’s top spot.

“It was great being part of the launch,” Lajdziak said. “Pulling together the product and market strategy for a new car brand was a great experience.”

One of GM’s early Saturn slogans was, “A different kind of car company.”

Lajdziak said that helped establish the culture for the company and its brand.

“Saturn set out to lead the industry in a different way,” she said. “We wanted to focus on great guest treatment.”

That meant creating low-pressure sales environments at retail outlets and selling vehicles that were practical, dependable and affordable. A well-known Saturn vehicle feature was its dent-resistant doors, a tradition that continues today.

“I think we have a great brand and one that’s developed into one many people trust,” Lajdziak said.

Since its inception, Saturn on average sells about 250,000 vehicles annually.

Overall in 2005, GM sold about 4.5 million vehicles, with Saturn sales representing about 5 percent of that figure.

Time of transition
As American automakers’ struggle against foreign competition, Lajdziak knows General Motors has to rethink its ap
proach.

“In some areas we are behind,” Lajdziak said. But that doesn’t mean she can’t help restore some luster to the company with the help of some new Saturn models.

John Bergstrom, chairman and chief executive officer of Neenah-based Bergstrom Automotive Group, understands GM’s struggles but is encouraged by the company’s turnaround strategy.

“The biggest challenge GM has is to sell enough vehicles in a profitable way that they can offset their costs,” he said. “What’s difficult for GM is selling the volume of small-priced cars to raise the dollars they need.”

Expanding Saturn’s lineup is a good sign, Bergstrom said.

“They’ve taken it from a small-car brand to building an entirely new platform,” he said.

Available now is the Sky, a new two-seat roadster. Saturn also will begin selling a hybrid version of its Vue sport utility vehicle this year as well as a new midsized car called the Aura.

Though GM’s competitors have been selling hybrid vehicles for a few years, Lajdziak believes additional choices will lure buyers.

“Our Vue hybrid will be a game changer,” she said. The hybrid option on a Vue will add about $2,000 to the price of the SUV, which starts at about $18,000.

“Certainly in hybrids, GM has been behind but the great news is we have one now,” Lajdziak said. “Our brand has been beautified. We think people will take notice and we will win our way back.”

She said women and first-time car buyers have traditionally been Saturn’s demographic.

Lajdziak believes that Saturn’s new models, and upcoming lines like the Prevue, a new compact sport utility, will expand the company’s reach.

“We had a limited portfolio of models, but that isn’t the case now,” she said. “We’ve changed our formula.”

Wisconsin roots
Bergstrom was among the first 21 Saturn dealerships nationally.
Lajdziak said Bergstrom’s six Wisconsin Saturn dealerships as a whole rank among the brand’s top five sellers by volume nationally.

“He really embraced the concept of customer attention in the early days,” Lajdziak said.

Bergstrom has known Lajdziak since Saturn’s launch.
“I trained with Jill,” he said. “She has a passion for the brand and driven to make it successful.”

Growing up in a family business helps Lajdziak keeps things in perspective.

She said her job is demanding on her time and airports sometimes can feel like a second home. Typical work days begin at 6:15 a.m.

“On those days I’m not traveling, I’m home around 8-ish,” Lajdziak said.

But she doesn’t forget her husband, Bob, and her sons, Robert and Andrew.

“When I’m home, I do make time for my family,” she said. “I use a guideline that was passed on from my parents that I want to pass on to my kids: I want them to remember to maintain good values and remember that when you do spend time with family, you want those moments to be memory makers.”

Lajdziak believes it’s important to remember the basics when it comes to life and career choices.

“Make sure you have good values and that you stick to them,” she said. “You have to have a passion for what you do. I always say to people if you don’t love what you do, then you should find what you love and put your heart and soul into it.”

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