William J. Lovejoy's ascendance to General Motors Corp.'s "hot seat" in charge of sales, service and marketing meets with support of veteran GM dealers, even as they express surprise at the sudden retirement of his predecessor, Roy S. Roberts.

"If anybody can sort out this job, Bill can," said Frank Ursomarso, member of GM's National Advisory Dealer Forum, NADA's Delaware director and a Buick-Pontiac-GMC dealer in Wilmington.

Mr. Lovejoy, effective April 1, becomes group vice president for GM's sales and sales-related functions.

He succeeds Mr. Roberts who in the position had faced declining GM market share and dismal relations with dealers because of several GM initiatives, including a controversial plan to acquire dealerships.

Mr. Lovejoy, 59, currently heads GM's Service Parts Division. Before that he headed GMAC.

In both those positions, he became close to dealers and their needs, drawing high marks for establishing a quick parts delivery plan in 1998.

"It's too bad Bill wasn't around when they tried to computerize vehicle ordering with the VOMS system a year ago," says a Wisconsin Chevrolet dealer, citing another GM point of contention with dealers. "He would have known how to resolve the glitches and foul-ups. Roberts did not know how."

Mr. Roberts, 60, served at GM for 20 years and previously headed the GMC and Pontiac divisions. He leaves after GM Chairman and CEO John F. Smith, Jr., reeled back a plan to buy about 770 dealerships after NADA executives heatedly protested that as an "intrusion" on their business.

Mr. Roberts, as he announced his retirement, pronounced the GM Retail Holdings plan to acquire dealerships "dead." He said its manager, vice president Darwin E. Clark, was being reassigned.

Mr. Roberts, a former factory worker who rose spectacularly through the ranks, says he felt good about what he had "put into the equation here." He had become the highest African-American in an automotive industry position.

Ironically, Mr. Roberts reportedly was planning to buy a GM dealership in Grand Rapids, MI - just as about 250 of Michigan's 300 GM dealers were forming an alliance to deal with factory-relations issues.

"We look forward to a dialogue with GM that will raise dealer satisfaction," says Jim Muir, alliance president and an Oldsmobile-GMC dealer in Sterling Heights, MI. "If Roy does become a Michigan GM dealer, he's welcome to join."

The Mr. Lovejoy-for-Mr. Roberts change was orchestrated, sources reported, by the president of GM North American Operations, Ronald L. Zarrella, whom many GM dealers believe has been unresponsive to their interests and fails to consult them.

"Bill Lovejoy always has interacted with us on a candid level, and made decisions creatively rather than on the basis of custom," says Kevin Rinke, owner of Rinke Pontiac-GMC and Rinke Cadillac, Warren, MI.

Mr. Roberts is considered a flamboyant marketer who as group vice president of sales, service and marketing, had the unenviable assignment of explaining market share declines and carrying out GM's controversial dealer programs.

What Mr. Lovejoy lacks in flamboyancy, he makes up for with a reputation as a solid manager with strong dealer ties.