Friday, November 21, 2008

The Man Who Could Run GM

The Man Who Could Run GM

Of the three auto executives begging Congress for a bailout, General Motors Chairman G. Richard Wagoner Jr. looks the most exposed. Politicians have said that a Detroit management shakeup is long overdue, while the commentariat has been crackling with outraged calls for the GM chief's scalp. For weeks, Wagoner said he was staying put—despite presiding over $33.8 billion in losses in the past three years—and GM's board backed him. But after the Washington hearings on Nov. 19, he told reporters that he would step aside if that would help GM get a bailout.

Assuming Wagoner pulls the ripcord, GM would likely promote an insider: heir apparent President and COO Frederick A. "Fritz" Henderson.

Is he the man to fix America's largest carmaker?

Henderson, who has spent half of his 49 years at GM, is a creature of Detroit. Like Wagoner, he hails from the company's finance ranks and is not a "car guy." Henderson, who declined to comment, has largely echoed his boss's assertion that GM's massive restructuring efforts will allow it to bounce back when the economy improves.


Then again, Henderson is no Wagoner. Where the boss is measured and aloof, Henderson is fast-talking and direct. He attacks problems with gusto, which is why GM sent him to trouble spots on three continents. "Fritz has a real sense of urgency," says Joseph Phillippi, principal of firm Auto Trends Consulting. "His intensity would be a big plus."

Earlier this decade, Henderson shored up GM's flailing European operations. He needed to cut jobs and came out swinging—announcing 12,000 layoffs even before inking a deal with union bosses. The move sparked a wildcat strike in Germany, but Henderson got his way. He also helped introduce the Chevrolet brand to Eastern Europe. After years of losses, GM Europe made $357 million in 2006 and a small profit last year. (Those gains have deteriorated along with the global economy.)

During a two-year stint in Asia, Henderson simplified GM's brand strategy. The company used to sell Saturn, Chevrolet, and cars from former partners Isuzu, Suzuki, and Subaru in Japan. Henderson focused solely on Chevy. He can't take all the credit, but Chevy is now GM's global brand.

Since returning to Detroit nearly three years ago, Henderson has spent much of his time negotiating with the United Auto Workers. The deal he cut with the union will save GM billions a year. "If it weren't for Fritz and his team," said UAW President Ron Gettelfinger at the time, "this deal would never have come about."

A fair question: Who in their right mind would want Wagoner's job? At least three of GM's eight brands must vanish, the UAW will have to be persuaded to give up a lot more, GM's battered image needs to be rebuilt—the list goes on. Henderson, assuming he got the post, likely would need government help. It's not clear that, once enthroned, his boldness and clear thinking would be enough. That said, two years ago Henderson told BusinessWeek that "no brand has a God-given right to exist." Imagine Rick Wagoner saying that.

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