Whitacre is still an unknown factor. But he is doing things that other successful turnaround artists have done, like Sergio Marchionne at Fiat. And a lot like Whitacre himself did at AT&T.
He’s determined and demanding of others. He’s fast. He listens carefully to smart folks, but makes his own decisions.
I like that Whitacre’s inner circle includes Vice Chairman Tom Stevens and new president of North America, Mark Reuss. Both car guys, folks passionate about product, who live the life automotive outside the office too.
Whitacre gets that GM must move fast, faster, fastest. He must recast GM’s entire plodding, Motown-centric culture in North America.
And his target can’t be just a leaner, meaner GM. It has to be more like the mid-1980s Chrysler under Lee Iacocca and Bob Lutz, when Chrysler relied on fast development cycles, hot products and beating bigger companies to market.
Does that sound too radical?
Consider: that Chrysler got to 2.5 million annual sales, almost all in North America. GM’s U.S. sales this year will be about 2 million. GM’s not so big in its home market anymore.
We can certainly debate Whitacre’s decisions. Moving Nick Reilly to run GM of Europe hurts GM in Asia, but may be necessary. Selling partner status in China and a stake of GM’s operation in India to SAIC may be painfully necessary, but limits GM’s best long-term upside. GM upset Germany, workers and others by scrapping its sale of Opel, but preserved its global scale and future upside in Europe.
But we can’t fault Whitacre for speed and determination.
One small point.
I still think Whitacre’s missing the boat on symbolic gestures. They may not fit in his timetable, and it’s hard to fault his sense of urgency, but symbols are important both inside -- employees, dealers and suppliers -- and outside. Washington, Wall Street, you know, shareholders, namely every citizen of the U.S. and Canada.
One gesture is simple. Clarify the time he spends running GM. When Whitacre announced Henderson’s departure, he said he’d now be at his GM office “daily.”
My first reaction, one perhaps shared by GM employees working long hours, was “Huh?” How often have you been showing up? Are you saying that as both chairman and CEO, you now consider running GM a full-time job?
Hey, maybe we misunderstood. So tell us.
However, if Whitacre is looking for a grand gesture, there’s an easy one. Buy a house in Detroit.
As CEO of Chrysler under Cerberus, Bob Nardelli never did. Sure enough, he’s now rejoined his wife back at his $35 million digs near Atlanta.
Yes, Ed, we know you’re an interim chairman, but you’re stuck with the gig until you can find a new CEO, line up a permanent chairman and take GM public again before the 2010 Congressional election.
Living in Detroit would make a powerful statement and boost sagging GM morale. Hey, considering the depressed prices of auto-executive housing here and the bounce a successful IPO would bring, it might even be a good investment.