Roger Penske: 'We're going to build a Saturn team'

Roger Penske, known for his successful racing teams, in addition to being the nation's second-largest auto dealer, has struck a tentative deal to buy the Saturn brand from General Motors. USA TODAY spoke with Penske on Sunday at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa.

Q: What's the next step in your acquisition of Saturn?

A: The next step is to close the transaction, which we hope to do at the end of the third quarter. We'll be dealing with GM on future product. Then we have the opportunity to source product from around the world as we go into future years. First, we're putting an organization together and closing the transaction. The great news is that we have 350 dealerships that will be alive and well and will not have to be shut down. I think that's a real by-product of this. For me personally, I know many of these dealers myself and they're some of the very best. So, I think we've got a great opportunity. I thank General Motors (for) supporting us, and obviously the government that wanted to see this happen.

Q: This seems to be a massive undertaking. Why do it?

A: My heart, my soul is in the automobile business. I started as a Chevrolet dealer in West Philadelphia in February 1965. So, I've seen lots of things happen in the industry. This opportunity, for me, is once in a lifetime. I think the fact that our organization completed a very good transaction with General Motors in 1988 when we bought Detroit Diesel… it was a success that gave us an entree to be able to do this with GM. So we're really a partnership.

Q: Where are you now with Dodge, your current NASCAR factory sponsor?

A: We're in great shape with Dodge. We have three more years to go on our contract. They have been upfront with us. We expect to continue in NASCAR with Dodge. As I saw Chevrolet's Ed Peper (general manager of GM's Chevrolet division) the other day say, (racing is part of their ) DNA (with respect to) their marketing area. I think that Dodge feels the same way and certainly does Ford. So I think the Big 3 will be stronger at the end of this process, and motorsports is part of the company culture in the U.S. The Big 3, NASCAR, IndyCar racing — these things are awfully important to the consumer. The technology that's generated out of these types of races will be good today and good in the future. I'm very positive. I live in Detroit so I'm passionate about seeing things in Detroit turning around.

Q: Do you envision Saturn becoming involved in racing down the line?

A: As you dream at night about things you'd like to do, you'd say, 'Jeez, I'd love to see Saturn product involved.' But if you have 100 things to do, that's certainly not in the top 50.

Q: Will the impact of Saturn affect your racing or business endeavors?

A: Obviously, it takes time and effort to commit to this type of thing. But what it does, it gives our organization a chance to put together a first-class Saturn team. Jill Lajdziak is the general manager today. She's been very helpful in this process, and I hope she takes a leadership role. So, it's a chance to take a group of people because of the problems that GM's been facing over the last several years (and) it's a new life for them. We partner with GM. We get the best assets and the best support from Fritz Henderson (GM president and CEO) and from his team (including) Mark LaNeve (GM's North America vice president of sales and marketing) and we get to go forward and try to be successful.

I want to say this: There is risk associated with these types of things. I don't want anyone to think this is a walk in the park. This is a serious business. This is a serious opportunity for us. But more importantly as I think about what's going on today in the world, in the U.S. and especially in Detroit, 13,000 jobs will be saved (along with) 350 dealerships and a great brand — an iconic brand that has been developed by General Motors over the years. We don't lose that. We start with a tremendous foundation of product, of people and, more important, we have 3.5 million consumers that are driving Saturn vehicles today. If you came in from the outside as a manufacturer from anywhere in the world, you wouldn't have that base.

Q: With all you have going on, are you afraid you might be spreading yourself thin?

A: Well, I would say this: People work hard. I work hard. The key thing about our organization is we've got great people, and the great thing about Saturn is that inside the organization we're going to develop a key team. So it isn't like we're starting from a green field. We have people that know the brand, know the network, and many of these retailers I already know.

Q: The question everyone seems to have: How will Saturn supply its dealers down the road?

A: We have a couple years of supply from GM, and one of the first jobs for us will be to find out who will be a partner for us. But the great thing is we get to look on a worldwide basis to people who have the best product that we can compete with in the U.S. Then the goal will be, obviously, to have the volume so that it's viable to come in and manufacture the product in the U.S. So step one: Take GM product. That saves jobs in the plant. It gives them the opportunity to (make) more cars to cover their fixed and variable costs because Saturn will be taking (on) those. Then we take a look at who's out there that wants to enter the United States and we give them a great base of dealerships, a customer base and hopefully a good management team. And after that, we have the opportunity to manufacture cars here with the particular partner we would choose in the near-term.

Q: Saving 13,000 jobs. Do you see yourself as a savior or hero, at least to these people?

A: This is like a race. They've thrown the green flag. There's a long way until we get to the finish. This will not just be me. My name's on the door (but) it's all the people that work for us. I'm passionate about the U.S. My life has changed since I became an automobile dealer. GM gave me a chance over 40 years ago. To me, this is an opportunity to do something for the country, but, more importantly for all the people that work at Saturn and all the other people that are in the auto business, because there are suppliers, dealership employees (at stake). We love teamwork and that's what we're going to do. We're going to build a Saturn team.