Henderson Out at G.M. Is Lutz In?

December 1, 2009, 5:56 pm

Henderson Out at G.M. Is Lutz In?

Fritz Henderson resigned as chief executive of General Motors late Tuesday. The news was delivered by Ed Whitacre, G.M.’s chairman, who will fill Mr. Henderson’s role on an interim basis until the automaker can find a replacement.

Bob Lutz, G.M.’s vice chairman, has spent time at all three Detroit automakers, but has never served as chief executive. Has his time finally come?

Mr. Henderson served as chief executive for about eight months. He was supposed to deliver the keynote speech at the Los Angeles auto show tomorrow morning. But now he will be replaced by Bob Lutz, G.M.’s vice chairman, which conjures an intriguing scenario: Could Mr. Lutz also eventually replace Mr. Henderson’s role as chief executive?

It would be a remarkable comeback for an executive who was pretty much laid out to pasture even before Rick Wagoner was fired by the Obama administration. In February, he announced his gradual retirement by the end of the year. In April, he was nowhere to be found at the New York Auto Show, bedridden after having back surgery. The man known as “Maximum Bob” was silenced.

But since then, Mr. Lutz has slowly returned to the limelight. He rejoined G.M. as vice chairman of advertising, marketing and communications, and immediately hit the computer, churning out blog posts on G.M.’s FastLane blog. He said that the Pontiac G8, his baby, would live on under a different brand, then backtracked, then reversed that second decision. This was classic Bob Lutz in his full garrulous grandeur.

Then came G.M.’s “May the Best Car Win” campaign and the infamous conference call, during which Mr. Lutz declared that the Cadillac CTS-V super sedan could best all comers on the racetrack. When Jalopnik called him out on the boast, challenging Mr. Lutz and the CTS-V to a timed duel, he agreed. And he turned the competition into a publicity stunt that was covered on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and an upcoming television program on Speed TV.

Think about it. Mr. Lutz has always been considered G.M.’s product guru, even while serving under Mr. Wagoner. And now his reputation at G.M. has never been higher or his presence more visible. If anything, he’s proven himself to be a survivor. Mr. Wagoner is gone. Mr. Henderson, out. Mark LaNeve, the Chevrolet brand manager, out also. And who’s still there? Bob Lutz, who, at 77, has never been an auto chief executive. Yes, it’s a stretch, but who ever thought a Boeing executive would be running Ford?

So, tomorrow, the keynote speech. The next day, who knows?

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