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Soccer ties cost GM marketer

Firing may hurt CEO Akerson’s plans for change


– General Motors Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson’s conflicts with maverick marketer Joel Ewanick started weeks before he was ousted for not properly disclosing as much as a third of the cost of a $559 million soccer deal, people familiar with the situation said.

Akerson would no longer protect his marketing head after a whistle-blower stepped forward and GM determined Ewanick was spreading the price of the agreement with English soccer team Manchester United among several different marketing budgets to avoid his boss’ spending limits, sources said. When confronted, Ewanick denied it, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because the details are private.

There’s no evidence that Ewanick profited personally from the transaction said two sources, while another said the investigation continues. The ouster of a key lieutenant he was mentoring reflects the steep challenges facing Akerson as he tries to change the culture of the country’s largest carmaker.

“Whether you liked Joel or not, he brought a significant amount of experience both on the brand side as well as the agency side, and he had a lot of very influential relationships,” Mike Jackson, a former vice president of marketing at GM, who left the automaker in 2007, said this month. “It’s a huge setback.”

The departure of the former Hyundai and Nissan marketer is also a personal setback for Akerson. He supported Ewanick’s risk-taking spirit to shake up GM’s staid marketing culture, promoting him to run global marketing in December 2010.

“I know a lot of the public views this as a personality-driven industry,” Akerson told analysts this month when asked about Ewanick’s departure. “It’s a team effort and what you saw manifest in the marketplace was a thought-out strategy that was agreed upon as a team.”

Ewanick told GM that the structure of the Manchester United deal wasn’t out of the ordinary for large contracts, a person familiar with the discussion said. GM’s investigators saw it differently, sources said.

GM has said it doesn’t have immediate plans to change Ewanick’s marketing strategy. His interim replacement, Alan Batey, takes the helm as GM replaces or refreshes 70 percent of its U.S. nameplates in 2012 and 2013, including its redesigned full-size pickups next year.

The progress Ewanick was making was important because Akerson is trying to stem losses in Europe that have totaled $16.8 billion since 1999 and improve profit margins and stave off Toyota, which saw its worldwide sales surge 34 percent in 2012’s first half to 4.97 million vehicles, ahead of GM’s 4.67 million.

Ewanick, meanwhile, hasn’t lost his marketing flair. He used Twitter to make his parting statement, saying July 29 it was his privilege to “be a small part of Detroit’s turnaround.” Later that day, he posted a link to a story about his own ouster.