Former Director of Corporate Strategy at General Motors
Nick spent 38 years at General Motors and was one of a handful of employees who led Onstar, GM’s leading telematics unit, in the early 2000’s. Nick joined GM straight out of MIT where he rotated between engineering and manufacturing roles before joining the Strategy organisation within GM. In 2005, he joined Onstar and was involved in scaling the aftermarket business before rolling out factory installation of Onstar for every GM vehicle. Nick was pivotal in scaling Onstar and explored various ways to monetise vehicle data from insurance, repair and diagnostics, and infotainment. Nick is the former Director of Corporate Strategy for GM where he was responsible for addressing new growth areas across connectivity, telematics, and mobility. Nick is now a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. Read more
Nick, can you share an introduction to your background at GM?
I have been at General Motors my entire career, coming right out of engineering school and started off in engineering and manufacturing. I had the good fortune of being able to attend MIT to do my graduate work in management and when I came back to GM, I wanted to focus on strategy, so I ended up in the strategy organization and we had an internal consulting group at the time. We worked on a variety of projects, across the corporation, looking at operational improvements and new business opportunities. One of the very first projects I got a chance to be involved in was the OnStar business while it was still an idea. Over the course of time, I worked on various aspects of different activities in the corporation from a strategy standpoint and, at one point, got asked to join OnStar where I was the Vice President of business development and new services. After that I helped start up Maven – GM's car sharing business – for a few years.
I then moved back into the strategy role and was very involved in the autonomous vehicle activities, working with Cruise. A couple of years ago I retired and I now teach at MIT in the Sloan School for the Executive Education program.
What was the rationale for GM starting the OnStar business?
GM had been interested in exploring what could be done with vehicle connectivity for many years. It started in the 1960s and, for a variety of reasons, the technology was not ready for the scaling which was required; the infrastructure was far too expensive. At one point, we contemplated building a series of private network microwave towers across the continent. It was billions of dollars and was not part of the core business. There was always an interest and a belief that we could leverage connectivity to enhance the safety, security, functionality and new services for customers and the right combination of technologies converged in the mid-90s which was when the corporation took a much harder look at it. At the same time, GM owned two other corporations.
One was Electronic Data Systems, EDS which is an IT organization, and the other was Hughes Electronics. I suspect there was some pressure from Wall Street back then asking why they were involved in non-automotive activities. The CEO and senior leadership team were more ready to look at what some of these synergies might be and that was where the team, which had been looking at the connectivity possibilities, really pulled together the right focused effort to study it. The answer was yes; it could be valuable, profitable and important to our customers.
What was the core business of OnStar in those early days?
The core business was, and still is, focused on peace of mind services and the safety and security and how the connectivity and capabilities of those platforms enhance our digital lifestyles. Although I am using more current lingo but the central theme was always safety, security and peace of mind. We initially went to market with an aftermarket product and OnStar was available on a single Cadillac vehicle – the DeVille – and I think it was a 1995 or 1996 model. It was installed at the dealership and was a Hughes telephone with the old cord built-in. We had subscribed to an extra cellular service, on top of OnStar, and the installation cost was $1,200.
The car was at the dealer for several days while they ripped it apart to install all the new electronics. It was very expensive and, as we expected, was going to be a hard sell at that level. We always believed a factory installation business model was appropriate but the corporation was not ready for that commitment in those early days. The OnStar aftermarket business plateaued at 70,000 customers, after which my team and I took a hard strategic look to how we could move the business to a factory installation model and grow it further.
Competing in the aftermarket was clearly difficult as the customer not only had to pay for it but also had to bring their old car to the dealership and not use it for several days. It seems a high hurdle rate to get over to deploy the device?
Yes, it was difficult from both a friction and customer standpoint and building the awareness was an important component. We were small, had few customers and advertising was expensive. We were highly dependent on the dealers to talk about it during the point of sale. While it was difficult, it was also a huge advantage that other aftermarket providers did not have. Dealers are very profit minded and wanted a big commission to help sell those products. This was not core to General Motors, who viewed it as another option on a vehicle, no different from anti-lock brakes.