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"Not a car guy" to run GM

Scott Jagow Dec 1, 2009

After just a few months on the job, GM CEO Fritz Henderson resigned today. It’s not clear why. We just know he’ll be replaced by a man who has repeatedly said that he is not a car guy.

That would be GM’s board chairman and former AT&T leader Ed Whitacre Jr. Some clues about the change from the Detroit Free Press:

Whitacre and Henderson seemed to clash since the first board meeting in August. The Whitacre-led board un-did a deal to sell GM’s Opel division, a deal put together under Henderson’s watch. Whitacre has also made public comments that have seemed to run contradictory to what Henderson’s plans for the future entailed…

The announcement came on a day when GM announced its fourth month of year-over-year sales declines since emerging from bankruptcy. October was the first time GM had seen a sales increase over the previous year in 21 months.

In addition to Opel, several other high profile business deals have fallen through in recent months. GM’s deal to sell Saturn to Penske Automotive Group fell apart at the last minute. A deal to sell Saab fell apart last week.

Read more on today’s car sales numbers.

I watched the GM press conference on Henderson’s resignation. Not much to see. Whitacre basically said: It’s been a long day. I won’t be taking questions, but I’ll make myself available in the next few days.

He’ll have a lot of questions to answer. A spokesman said GM would be launching a national search for Henderson’s permanent replacement, but for now, Whitacre will take the reigns.

When Henderson replaced Rick Wagoner in March, The Financial Times wrote:

Although Mr Henderson is a down-to-earth and likeable character, he has always seemed a mite tougher than Mr Wagoner in his approach to restructuring, and more eager to challenge GM’s orthodoxies and its entrenched interests, notably its unions and its dealers.

That said, the question is whether GM needs another veteran of Detroit, steeped in its peculiar rituals and understandings, to dig it out of a very deep hole.

In fact, the board had been encouraging Henderson to hire executives from outside of GM, and Whitacre was installed by the Treasury Department as chairman. As for the government’s role in this?

The board made this decision and notified the Treasury Department — which holds a 61 percent majority stake in GM — but the government had no role in the decision, said GM spokesman Chris Preuss and the Obama administration. “This decision was made by the board of directors alone. The administration was not involved in the decision,” the White House said.

From what I’ve read, Whitacre is determined to change GM’s culture, so perhaps this shakeup will wind up being a positive move.

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