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New Opel CEO Neumann may have a mission impossible

Opel's new CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann is an auto industry veteran, but he hasn't remained in a top job long enough to judge whether he will be successful in turning around General Motors' unprofitable European operations.

It's a monumental task.

GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, who chairs Opel's supervisory board, told the brand's top managers in December that he is aiming for "the most successful comeback in the history of the European industry."

Neumann's main challenge is to meet GM's target of restoring the company's European operations to breakeven by 2015. To do that, Neumann likely will have to cut excess production capacity beyond the already scheduled closure of Opel's factory in Bochum, Germany. He must also stem the brand's plummeting sales, which fell 16 percent in Europe last year, at a time when the economic downturn that has sent southern Europe into crisis is expected to hit Opel's home market in Germany this year.

There are some positives for Neumann. The brand's product lineup is being refreshed with the recent launches of the Mokka subcompact SUV and Adam minicar. Both models join growing segments. The Cascada arrives in showrooms in April, giving dealers an upscale convertible in time for summer.

Neumann rose to become CEO of German supplier Continental in 2008 but he clashed with the supplier's major shareholder, Schaeffler, and was ousted after 11 months in the job. He joined Volkswagen and was sent to run VW's hugely profitable China operations, but fell out of favor and was replaced after less than two years.

The 51-year-old automotive electronics specialist, who hails from a small town in northwest Germany, will bring lots of industry experience along with energy and enthusiasm to Opel. However, he may also have an impossible mission.

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