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Ed Whitacre may be the right guy to resuscitate GM, ‘We’re tired of being … Government Motors’

Ed Whitacre may be the right guy to resuscitate GM

‘We’re tired of being … Government Motors’

BY TOM WALSH
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

 

Ed Whitacre is not a car guy.

He is, however, a lot like most Americans who are uncomfortable with government ownership of industry, embarrassed about taking handouts and impatient with slow-moving bureaucratic nonsense.

That’s why Whitacre may prove to be the right guy right now to run General Motors.

Like many others after the Obama administration fired Rick Wagoner and the post-bankruptcy GM board ousted Fritz Henderson as CEO, I wondered about the wisdom of Whitacre taking the reins at GM.

Big Ed, a 68-year-old Texan, is a retired AT&T boss who freely admits "it’s been a difficult time trying to learn the car business."

But as he responded bluntly to questions in a half-hour interview Thursday, it was clear that Whitacre, GM’s chairman and CEO, is a guy comfortable in his own skin, willing to trust his gut, make quick decisions and live with the consequences.

The old GM had lots of guys who knew about cars. What they needed were more people who would move fast, take risks and fix problems rather than let them fester.

Those are the kind of people Whitacre sought out as he shook up GM’s top-level management.

The promotion of Mark Reuss, 46, to be president of GM in North America, was the key move — and not an obvious one at a time when Whitacre was trying to zap the stodgy old-GM culture.

Wasn’t it counterintuitive, I asked Whitaker, to elevate the son of former GM President Lloyd Reuss, who was ousted in the board uprising of 1993?

‘Fire in his belly’

"Interestingly, I didn’t know Reuss’ dad had done all that when I first met Mark. He had just come back from Australia and was working for Tom Stephens in engineering.

"I liked the fire in his belly. I liked his leadership ability. I liked his knowledge of the company and I liked the fact that he wanted to be wildly successful.

"I thought he was willing to change a lot of things and that’s how it’s worked out."

Reuss, he said, has overhauled sales and marketing and handled a messy downsizing of the dealer body.

"He’s pretty fearless in tackling these things," Whitacre said. "He just kind of wades in and does it. He’s not a shy guy."

"We are trying to give people the authority and responsibility for certain things and hold them accountable," he added, "instead of having matrix management where nobody is really responsible, nobody has a timetable to meet, nobody has the authority."

Whitacre said GM still has shaping up to do and must yet convince a still-skeptical investment community to buy shares in the new company.

"It’s a big challenge," Whitacre said. "I think the American people are forgiving. I think some have already forgiven us. And I think more will."

Meanwhile, as GM’s fortunes improve, Whitacre is re-engaging GM with the community — "we’re committed to Detroit, I’ve said it to the mayor, we’re not going anywhere" — and he’s taking an occasional shot at the competition.

Asked about GM’s upcoming Chevrolet Volt, he said "it’s the only electric car you can drive across the country and never have to plug it in. Nobody else can make that claim, and nobody’s going to be able to for awhile.

"So if you’re in a (Nissan) Leaf when you get to 49 miles out," he said, smiling, "you better be thinking about heading home and hoping there’s no hills."

Not a car guy, Big Ed, but plenty of moxie.

 

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