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Smart Car’s New GM Has Tough Task

Tracey Matura takes over as Mercedes-Benz USA assumes control of U.S. distributor.

by on Mar.24, 2011

Smart's ForTwo represents the automaker's biggest problem. The 13-year-old design needs to be revamped to be competitive.

Mercedes-Benz USA has named one of its veteran retail strategists to take over the troubled Smart brand.

Tracey Matura, currently general manager of retail strategic development, was named to take over the brand a month after M-B announced it was canceling the Penske Automotive Group’s contract to distribute Smart cars in the U.S.

A Smart Source for Auto News!

Matura has a tough job. Initially given Smart distribution rights in 2008, Penske had good success the first year as the car’s novelty and tiny size made it a cult favorite. But once the early adopters got their Smart cars, keeping the sales momentum became tough.


Why Daimler Dumped Penske Over Smart

But after years of dithering, can the Germans do better at selling microcars to Americans?

by on Feb.18, 2011

Roger Penske and his team - including Smart boss Jill Lajdziak - appear to have been blindsided by Daimler's announcement about the brand's future.

After dithering for years over the future of Smart, Daimler AG is about to take a make-it-or-break it gamble on the long-struggling brand.

In a surprise move, the German maker – which also builds the high-line Mercedes-Benz brand, announced it would pull Smart’s U.S. distribution operations away from the Detroit-based Penske Auto Group and operate the American franchise on its own.  Penske had been given the distributorship, in 2008, after years of delay by Daimler, which wasn’t sure how to sell small cars in a market that normally equates bigger with better.

Auto News When You Need It!

Roger Penske, chairman of the eponymous Penske Auto Group and one of the most respected figures in the U.S auto industry, says the German automaker’s decision to cancel its distribution agreement with PAG was shaped by a desire to integrate Smart more closely into the Mercedes-Benz marketing organization.

“Going forward, Smart is seen as an integral part of the Mercedes-Benz network,” Penske said, adding Mercedes-Benz also needs the efficiency credits generated by Smart to meet future fuel-economy standards in both Europe and North America.


Can Smart Reinvent Itself?

U.S. distributor may teach the Germans what’s needed to save smart brand.

by on Jan.14, 2011

With the brand's sales off another 60%, last year, Smart USA boss Jill Lajdziak can only hope and wait for the distributor's planned 4-seat model.

It was the hit of 2008, its U.S. launch inadvertently timed to take advantage of the record run-up in fuel prices.  But since then, things haven’t gone nearly so well for the little Smart USA brand, which reported a nearly 60% drop in sales, last year alone, even as most makers reported double-digit gains.

In a bid to stave off disaster, the U.S. distributor, which is operated by Detroit entrepreneur Roger Penske, plans to introduce an all-new model later this year that will be built for it by Nissan, rather than Daimler, the German parent of the Smart brand.

Detroit Auto Show News!

Might even more products be added to the U.S. line-up that aren’t available to Smart buyers in other parts of the world? That’s not out of the question, according to various company officials who are betting that Smart can rebound from its disastrous tumble.

“We’ve got a business to run,” and that means that Smart USA may have to make some critical moves that aren’t necessarily what the folks at Daimler AG headquarters, in Stuttgart would like,” acknowledges Jill Lajdziak, the U.S. distributor’s boss.


First Drive: 2011 Smart Electric Drive

Betting on batteries in Brooklyn.

by on Jun.10, 2010

Will Smart find 250 customers for the battery version of its fortwo microcar -- at twice the price and with an 82-mile range?

It’s not the traffic we find ourselves watching out for, though there’s plenty of it on the busy streets of Brooklyn, but the potholes, massive gaps in the pavement that yawn wide and threaten to engulf our entire little microcar.

It’s not a job but an adventure, at times, taking tomorrow’s cars out for a ride, though few draw as many glances – some admiring, others just agape — as the 2011 Smart fortwo Electric Drive.  Call it the ED, for short, a battery-powered version of the French-German microcar.

The auto industry, as a whole, is increasingly coming to embrace the concept of electrification, with plug-in hybrids, like the Chevrolet Volt, and pure battery-electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf.  Even Mercedes-Benz is exploring its options, all the way up to a battery-powered version of its SLS supercar.

But the German maker’s sibling brand, Smart, seems especially well-suited to enter the electric field, delivering a battery version of its nimble little two-seater that was already targeted to the urban market.

Smart will launch sales of 250 EDs in the U.S., late this year, complimenting the fleet of more than 1,500 it will put on the road in Europe.  Plans call for launching full retail sales in 2012 as a 2013 model.  But the maker hopes to learn a lot, by then, as the original crop of guinea pigs, er, buyers put their EDs through the rigors of daily motoring.

(Click Here to see how Smart is betting on the ED to revive the brand.)

Stay Charged Up!

To get a sense of what they’re likely to discover, I headed to Brooklyn, earlier this week, where I squeezed into a fully-charged microcar alongside my colleague from, Joe Szczesny.


Can a Battery Car Recharge Smart?

Automaker launching test fleet of new electric vehicles.

by on Jun.10, 2010

Can a battery car version of the Smart fortwo help the brand keep its cool?

Few automotive brands have scored such a rapid rise – and suffered such an equally fast fall – as Smart, the microcar division of Daimler AG.  Desperately hoping to halt its ongoing slide, Smart executives are counting on an infusion of new products, including the brand’s first battery-electric vehicle.

About 250 Smart fortwo Electric Drive, or ED, models will be leased to U.S. customers over the coming months, with higher-volume sales set to begin in late 2012.  Though the Smart ED won’t do much to reverse slumping sales, it should put a halo around the brand until Smart can roll out new, conventionally-powered models closer to mid-decade.

“We are on the forefront of a revolution,” proclaimed Mark Langenbrinck, managing director of the Smart brand, during a media preview of the ED, in New York, this week.

(Click Here for the First Drive of the Smart Electric Drive.)

Your smart news source!

Looking out over the crowded metropolis, Langenbrinck noted that a century ago half the cars on New York roads were powered by batteries.  Some experts believe that for urban applications, clean electric powertrains could again come to dominate in the years ahead.  The technology does have some advantages in a city setting, where motorists are likely to clock far fewer miles than their suburban and rural counterparts.


Lajdziak Takes Over at Smart

Schembri moves on “new duties” at Penske retail organization.

by on Jan.04, 2010

Former Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak has replaced Dave Schembri as President of smart.

Faced with a massive slump in sales, the Penske Automotive Group has shaken up the management team at its smart USA operation.  Jill Lajdziak, the long-time head of General Motors’ Saturn brand has been name the new president of smart, which serves as U.S. distributor for the pint-sized fortwo, built in France.

Lajdziak replaces Dave Schembri, the automotive veteran who helped develop the smart franchise for the Penske Group and then brought it to market in early 2008.  A corporate release said Schembri, a Detroit native, will “transition into Penske Automotive Group’s retail operations.”

"smart" Move!

While the release contained strong praise for Schembri, there’s little doubt that the demanding Roger Penske has been frustrated by smart’s performance.  In the first months after the brand went on sale, in mid-January 2008, it scored a solid success, but that reflected fortuitous timing, as much as anything else, the launch coinciding with the record run-up in U.S. fuel costs.  Once pump prices peaked, in July 2008, sales tumbled sharply.


Lajdziak Leaves Saturn for Smart USA

New VP must reverse plummeting sales.

by on Dec.09, 2009

Former Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak will join the smart car organization. She's shown here in January 2008 accepting an award for the Saturn Aura.

Former Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak will join the smart car organization. She's shown here in January 2008 accepting the North American Car of the Year award for the Saturn Aura.

Jill Lajdziak, the former head of GM’s Saturn unit, is joining smart USA as executive vice president of sales and marketing – and the point person in the brand’s bid to reverse a devastating sales slump.

After scoring a big boost in 2008, much of it driven by record gas prices, smart, a division of Germany’s Daimler AG, has experienced an unanticipated slide prompting questions about the brand’s long-term viability in the U.S. market – even as other makers push into the small and urban commuter market segments.

A smart Choice!

A smart Choice!

“I am pleased that Jill has accepted our invitation to join smart as we enhance the position of the smart brand,” said Roger Penske, PAG Chairman and a well-known Detroit-based entrepreneur. “With her background building the Saturn organization and her expertise in customer satisfaction, product marketing, and brand development, Jill is an outstanding fit, and I am confident that she will help us grow the smart brand” Penske said.