NEW YORK – The environment is far from beleaguered in the top executive suites at General Motors Corp., says Mark R. LaNeve, GM North America vice president-vehicle sales, service and marketing.

“Our team across GM is really committed to turn the company around,” says the executive charged with leading the auto maker's comeback in North America. “We've got the mindset of an underdog.”

Mark R. LaNeve

LaNeve rejects the perception of some that GM management is arrogant.

“We're not,” he says in an interview prior to speaking to the International Motor Press Assn. here. “It's like we're all on 1-year contracts.”

LaNeve admits the GM management team gets frustrated at times, but he says it tries to compartmentalize the negative things and maintain focus.

He spends the majority of his time working and traveling to key markets. “I like to communicate with the dealers,” he says.

LaNeve, who has maintained his fitness, notes that when he played football for the University of Virginia the team was the underdog in almost every game.

“That made the wins all the sweeter, let me tell you,” he says. “I love being in the position of an underdog.”

LaNeve also expresses confidence a turnaround is under way.

The game plan, he continues to emphasize, includes retaining all eight GM brands. (See related story: GM Plans Fewer Models for Buick, Pontiac, GMC)

“It constitutes one of our greatest assets, giving us market coverage no other car maker can touch,” LaNeve says.

But while he stresses that Buick and Pontiac will not be jettisoned, he insists the brands will be more tightly focused.

Buick, Pontiac and GMC make up the fifth-largest retail channel in the U.S. market, LaNeve points out. “It's a complementary lineup that works well on a showroom floor.

The three brands will not continue to offer a broad portfolio of products.

“I'd rather have four great Pontiacs that are really distinct and stand for esthetic design and performance, than seven or eight capable but undistinguishable Pontiacs that fail to fully deliver on the brand's promise,” LaNeve says.

“GMC, Pontiac, Buick, Saturn, Saab and Hummer can offer vehicles that are very specific, rather than shipping millions of identical vehicles all over the world.”

LaNeve is so convinced Saturn is on a growth track that he says he would buy a Saturn dealership if he lost his present job.

For now, he is focusing on four key areas: clearly differentiate all the divisions and brands; present the market with a total value proposition rather than rely heavily on incentives; establish a stronger position in key regional markets – especially on both coasts where GM under performs; cultivate a consistent world-class retail channel.

He declines to speculate on how much it will cost to accomplish these goals, or whether it might be more cost-effective to simply drop the Buick and Pontiac brands. GM never has recovered Oldsmobile's market share, and scrapping Buick and Pontiac would further erode market share, LaNeve notes.

“We have the money to support all the new products we're launching,” he says. CEO Rick Wagoner “has also put more money into the marketing.”

LaNeve also promises GM will back its new-vehicle launches with longer-running marketing campaigns.

“I don't know if we'll lose more market share before we start gaining,” he says. “I hope not.”

LaNeve envisions driving the portfolio from two anchors, with Cadillac at the top as the exclusive premium brand and Chevrolet as the foundational high-volume brand.

In fact, he says most of GM's growth will come from Chevrolet, where he is looking to mirror the success of the Equinox in the cross/utility segment in other sectors.

“Chevy needs to have segment-leading products in every segment where it competes – from Aveo to ZO6, and from Equinox to Suburban,” LaNeve says.

His goal is to make Chevrolet the industry's volume-leading brand, but he also promises lower fleet sales and higher profits for dealers.

In addition, GM is simplifying its option-package strategy.

“Until recently, we tended to put the maximum option package discounts on our highest-spec vehicles,” he says. The new packages will be aimed at the sweet spot of the market.

“We're still a big company with big resources and a lot of smart people,” LaNeve says. “We are clearly working with a comeback, upset-minded attitude, which keeps us focused on doing one thing: designing, building and selling great cars and trucks that totally excite and satisfy customers.

“Don't count us out just yet.”