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Car guys? GM’s got ’em

August 15, 2010

Car guys? GM’s got ’em


The resignation of General Motors Co.’s CEO Ed Whitacre and installment of Daniel Akerson shook Detroit last week.

Akerson, a former telecommunications executive with financial and investment experience, will be the fourth CEO at the automaker in less than two years — and some pundits have worried that the new boss isn’t a "car guy."

Friday morning, I asked one of GM’s top car guys if the management changes hurt or help the company. Specifically, I asked Terry Woychowski, GM’s vice president, vehicle program management, this: "Does the GM CEO need to be a car guy?"

Woychowski, who has spent his career at GM and has more car-guy street cred in his little finger than I will ever possess, said in very clear terms: "No."

"There has never been a great car or truck designed in a boardroom," he said in between bites of Eggs Benedict.

See, Woychowski knows something all of the pundits seem to have forgotten: GM is chock full of car guys — and a load of car gals too.

They fill the Warren Tech Center. They work every day at the Milford Proving Grounds. They commute to offices in Germany, South Korea, China and Australia. The sun never sets on GM’s automotive talent.

Having a CEO able to field strip a transaxle blindfolded won’t help the company’s bottom line.

Whitacre was not a car guy, and he said exactly that a few weeks ago to The Detroit News in Traverse City. He wasn’t installed at GM to count lug nuts and rework clay models. He was there to focus the company.

"Mr. Whitacre simplified the complex at GM," Woychowski said. "He emboldened us by saying it was our mission to build the best cars."

Whitacre, of course, created some uncertainty for many of GM’s top leaders. He walked into the Ren Cen and replaced some top leadership. His message was clear: If you couldn’t get done what Whitacre wanted, he would find someone who could.

Heads rolled — rightfully or not.

But after GM emerged from bankruptcy, it start pumping out hit after hit after hit. This week it reported its highest quarterly profit in six years.

Auto insiders will point out that Whitacre doesn’t deserve much credit for any of those new cars and trucks coming out. Vehicle development is measured in years, not months, and anything debuting this year was well in the works before GM even entered bankruptcy.

Whitacre played as much of a role in the wildly successful Chevrolet Equinox as Akerson will play in the success of the Chevrolet Volt, due out in just a few months.

It’s the work of all of the car people at GM that will continue, whoever the CEO is.

No wonder, Woychowski said, that when he heard that Whitacre would step down from the top spot at GM, he paused for a moment and then got back to work.

"We have done a lot," he said, "and we have a lot more to do."

On Friday, Woychowski was on his way for another Knot Hole ride outside GM’s Milford Proving Grounds, where top executives drive the company’s new vehicles and the competition’s.

Despite his title as vice president, Woychowski intended to spend his afternoon driving and evaluating a vehicle, providing insightful feedback to engineers and vehicle development staff on where the test vehicle exceeds or fails to meet expectations.

I’ve personally seen Vice Chairman Tom Stephens, head of global product operations, talk about a transmission he thought needed additional calibrating because of its gear changes between third and fourth.

Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, can whip a compact car around corners like he’s running from the law and then get out and distill every potential problem with the vehicle.

Throughout GM, there are executives, engineers, designers, builders and factory workers who are car people. They approach their jobs with unparalleled passion because of their love of the machines they build. In recent years, the mood at GM has shifted from fearfully waiting to lose your job to focusing on making cars and trucks better.

No, there is not a shortage of car people at GM and maybe the best thing to happen to the company is the CEO has stopped being a car guy.

GM needs a leader with vision; one who can impact the company’s future. A Detroit outsider may be exactly what GM needs.

Just ask Ford Motor Co. about that.

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