Don’t be fooled by his charm

December 2, 2009

MEET THE MAN IN CHARGE

Don’t be fooled by his charm

Those who know Whitacre say he’s not only capable — he’s demanding

BY JOHN GALLAGHER
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Tall and lean, still speaking in the drawl of his native Texas, General Motors Chief Executive Officer Ed Whitacre displayed a folksy charm Tuesday in announcing the company’s latest executive changes.

But people who know him say the easygoing demeanor masks a demanding executive.

Gerald Meyers, adjunct professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, has known Whitacre for years. He described him as a natural leader and a "take-no-prisoners" boss.

"He’s a very hands-on guy," Meyers, former chairman and CEO of American Motors, said Tuesday. "He’s also a very demanding guy, and action is his main event.

"While I’m surprised that he didn’t give Fritz" Henderson "a chance to pull something together, I’m not surprised that he wants to run the joint. He’s very capable of it, too. He doesn’t know anything about the automobile business, but he’s one of the fastest learners I’ve ever run into."

Whitacre, 68, served as chairman and CEO of telecommunications giant AT&T and its predecessor companies from 1990 to 2007. He spent his entire career at AT&T, starting in 1963 and rising to lead Southwestern Bell several years after the court-ordered breakup of AT&T.

Whitacre successfully transformed Southwestern Bell, the smallest of the seven Bells when he took it over, into SBC, a giant that acquired AT&T and took its name.

After leaving AT&T, he taught business briefly in Texas. But his moves at GM since the government appointed him chairman in June show that he’s not the retiring type.

From the beginning, Whitacre asserted a visible role. He starred in a series of TV commercials presenting GM’s money-back guarantee on its new vehicles. And he publicly questioned whether Henderson’s stated desire to take the new GM public in 2010 was workable, saying GM ought to repay its government loans as a first priority.

He repeated that priority Tuesday, saying the company must quickly repay the U.S. and Canadian governments — though the bulk of U.S. taxpayers’ stake in GM is in equity that can be recouped through an eventual stock sale.

"I don’t know anything about cars," Whitacre told an interviewer earlier this year. But he added, "A business is a business, and I think I can learn about cars. I’m not that old, and I think the business principles are the same."

He has insisted on challenging GM’s culture, even in small ways.

"I hope you didn’t bring charts," Whitacre said at a meeting of mid-level executives who had arrived bearing their usual burden of charts and graphs. Whitacre added, "I want to get to know you."

Texan to his core, the 6-foot-4 Whitacre bears the nickname Big Ed and has told interviewers over the years that he enjoys roaming around his ranch near San Antonio on a Caterpillar tractor to move debris and dig holes. "I’ve been known to run over trees and do stupid things, but I like to do that," he said in a 1999 Business Week profile.

The magazine also reported that Whitacre casually kills the occasional rattlesnakes he comes across by pinning them with a stick and crushing their heads.

No surprise to those who know him.

Henderson, Meyers said, "didn’t stand a chance with Ed as his boss. If it was Jesus Christ, he would have bowled him over."

Contact JOHN GALLAGHER: 313-222-5173 or gallagher@freepress.com

Related content

More about Edward Whitacre

 

Age: 68

Education: Bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, Texas Tech University, 1964.

Career: Joined AT&T in 1963 and retired in 2007 as chairman and chief executive officer. Credited with building AT&T back into a telecommunications giant after the court-ordered breakup in the early ’80s. On Tuesday, he announced that he was taking over as chairman and CEO of General Motors Co.

Personal: The native Texan who enjoys ranch life as much as the executive suite has been married since 1964 and has two grown daughters.

What others say about him: He’s a hands-on, demanding executive who overcomes obstacles to achieve his aims. Don’t get in his way.

 

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