Tom Shaver started his automotive career as a teenager washing cars at the Chevrolet dealership in his hometown in Kentucky.
He capped it off — 39 years later as the vice president and general manager of Volkswagen’s U.S. Operations.
In between he created a track record filled with one-of-a-kind experiences and achievements before rebooting, first as a partner with J.D. Power and Associates, and again as a photographer and videographer.
Highlights of Tom’s car career ranged from staging one of the the world’s largest private parties (at Disneyland for employees of a newly required GM subsidiary) to devising the marketing strategy for selling a completely new car (Saturn, developed by General Motors in the 1980s.)
“My fascination with the automotive industry began at an early age,” Tom says. “By the time I was 13 my heart was set on working for Chevrolet. That was my dream. One Saturday, I went to the Chevy dealership in my hometown of Central City, Kentucky, and saw two men washing used cars. I asked them if I could help and would they teach me the proper way to detail a car. They agreed, and I kept showing up every Saturday. On my fifth or sixth Saturday washing cars, Ed Henry, the dealer, noticed me and asked what I was doing.
The right decision
“I replied that I was learning the right way to wash and clean a car. He inquired if anybody had paid me for the work I had done. I said no, and to my surprise, he gave me $60. That’s when I knew I had made the right decision to go into the car business…it paid really well!”
Tom worked at the dealership reconditioning used cars every summer through his high school years. During college, when he was home for the summer, he had various jobs working in parts, business management and sales accumulating a store of valuable training.
After college at the University of Kentucky and active-duty military service, Tom landed a position in Chevrolet’s Louisville zone office as a field administrator, traveling a seven-state area and auditing parts accounts for 172 Chevrolet dealers.
Tom steadily moved up the Chevrolet ranks to the position of assistant national manager for trucks in the Western U.S. He was in that position when General Motors tapped him and three other managers to go to Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business to get a master’s degree in management.
Magic in the Magic Kingdom
After Stanford Tom held several positions of increasing responsibility in the field and home office, and in 1985, he was promoted to Director of Global Merchandising for General Motors. His responsibilities included GM’s national shows and exhibits, World of Motion at Disney World, GM vehicle auction activities and the GM Protection Plan.
“When General Motors acquired Hughes Aircraft, I developed a “Welcome to the GM Family” activity at Disneyland,” Tom says. “The idea was to rent Disneyland, place General Motors products throughout the park, and open the park exclusively to Hughes employees and their families.
“General Motors took over the park for nine nights, and Hughes employees received up to seven tickets per family for a specific night. The event was attended by 198,000 Hughes employees and family members over nine successive evenings – the event was submitted to the Guinness World Records as the world’s largest private party ever held over successive evenings. It was a great success.”
Never one to rest on his laurels (or world records), in 1987 Tom was selected to join the new Saturn Corporation as director of marketing.
Giving birth to a new car
“This was a ‘modified reboot,’” Tom says. “The Saturn team members were not keen on having new folks just bring their GM way of doing things to a new organization. At the time of my joining, Saturn was still just an idea. I was asked to develop a strategy to launch both a new company and a new car. My responsibilities included advertising, merchandising, product launch, customer enthusiasm activities, sales promotions, shows and exhibits, and retail facility design and implementation.
“The first task was to develop a marketing plan and select Saturn’s advertising partner. I interviewed the top 50 advertising agencies in the country vying for the Saturn account. We narrowed the list down to eight, and with our marketing strategy team, made the final selection. The Saturn car was successfully launched in 1990.”
Ever the salesman, Tom carried the banner for Chevrolet even when he was a student at Stanford.
“After the Stanford president addressed our class one day, I saw the old Oldsmobile he was driving,” Tom says. “I offered him my company car – a new white Chevy Caprice – to drive over the next couple of weeks to see how he liked it. As a result, Stanford bought my Caprice for the president. I also arranged for a couple of Chevrolet trucks to be shipped out as demos, and Chevrolet ended up getting a major share of Stanford’s truck business as well.”
And introducing another new car
In 1992, Tom parted ways with General Motors when he was recruited to direct the U.S. operations of Volkswagen as vice president and general manager. At his interview in Wolfsburg, Germany, he was asked by the Chairman of Volkswagen AG to do for VW what his team had achieved with Saturn.
“My position took me to Germany twice a month,” Tom says. “This was a totally new experience – did not know anyone at VW and essentially did not know the dealer organization – everything was new – all the policies and procedures. Even the class designations of cars were different. It was a challenge working for a company where you did not speak the language. I had told Chairman Piech that the first thing I wanted to do was to learn to speak Deutsch…he replied VW is becoming an English-speaking company and that would not be necessary. He fibbed! – at most meetings in Germany – the discussions quickly changed to Deutsch!”
Tom introduced the famous new “Beetle” Concept I vehicle at the North American International Automobile show in January 1994. During his tenure at the company, Volkswagen had dramatic sales improvement and was recognized as the most improved brand in sales satisfaction performance. He left VW in a major reorganization that resulted in a 50% reduction in personnel.
“My first real reboot was in 1995,” Tom says. “I was invited to return to California and join J.D. Power and Associates as a senior partner. I had overall responsibility for public relations, consumer marketing and the international automotive roundtable, and the Leadership in Customer Satisfaction Roundtable that we co-sponsored with The Wall Street Journal. I met many national and international executives as I was intimately involved in the J.D. Power awards and recognition program. I retired from the firm in 2008.
“During my career, my wife Skip and I moved 13 times. Throughout the years, my fun and final reboot was photography, which had always been a keen hobby. While working at J.D. Power and Associates I continued to focus on improving my photography and computer skills. Once retired, I became a regular attendee at MacWord and Photoshop World conferences and upgraded my photo gear and computer equipment. Today, I am a serious photographer and very much enjoy using my skills to showcase fun and excitement.
Picturing it all
“I also began developing video skills using the professional program Final Cut Studio. As a result, I have been a ‘no charge’ wedding photographer doing both stills and video for friends, producing DVDs with their wedding music. I have done seven weddings.”
Throughout Tom’s career, international travel was beckoning. A camera was always nearby. He and Skip have now visited 55 countries. “There is nothing like seeing the sunrise over Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Treasury at Petra, Grand Canal in Venice, and the beautiful sunset at Angkor Wat in Cambodia,” he says. “Other highlights were visiting the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings on the Nile, the rock churches in Ethiopia and the spectacular coastal cities of Portofino and Positano – truly magical experiences! I now have 155,000 photos and videos stored on my Mac computers.
“After each of our trips, I produce a Blu-Ray DVD of our trip with photos, video and local music. It makes a much more enjoyable experience to have these great digital memories instead of looking at a scrapbook or a tray of slides.”
Once the pandemic is over, Tom and Skip hope to travel again, because they have some unfinished business: Says Tom, “I still have 1.5 million frequent flyer miles to use!”