GM's Akerson: 'We had to right the ship'

Akerson drove to a 2012 hearing on Capitol Hill in a Chevy Volt.

Photo credit: GM
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DETROIT -- In the 39 months since Dan Akerson volunteered to be General Motors' CEO during a board meeting, the automaker has earned about $16 billion.

His tenure started as GM prepared to launch one of the largest initial public stock offerings in U.S. history and ends with GM free of the government ownership that had restricted executive pay since the automaker’s 2009 bankruptcy. Although its U.S. market share fell to an 88-year low in 2012, the company has been profitable every quarter under Akerson -- an accomplishment none of his living predecessors can say they achieved.

“This is a great company again,” Akerson told employees at a town hall meeting today, after announcing that he would step down in January. “I always knew I would be viewed somewhat as a transition CEO. We had to right the ship, get it under way.

“Now,” he said, turning to his successor, product development chief Mary Barra, “take it across the ocean.”

Maritime metaphors

Akerson, a former telecommunications executive and Navy lieutenant prone to using maritime metaphors, acknowledged he knew little about cars when he arrived in Detroit. He was appointed to GM’s board as a representative of the U.S. Treasury in July 2009.

"Dan was pretty vocal during the executive session," former CEO Ed Whitacre recounted in his book published this year. “Said he thought GM was one of the worst companies he'd come across in his entire life. And he was not a fan of GM cars -- he made that crystal clear.”

In 2010, when Whitacre decided to step down, he said Akerson got the job as CEO by virtue of being the only one in a board meeting to “put his hand up” as the board sought a replacement.

Today, Akerson speaks more favorably of GM’s products -- and so do many others.

Consumer Reports recently declared the redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Impala to be the best sedan in the country, and GM makes three of the six vehicles that today were named finalists for the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards handed out next month.

“He came in right at a very precarious time,” Barra told employees at today’s employee town hall, “right before we needed to do an IPO and really instilled the teamwork, the leadership qualities and the spirit of winning -- winning whether it’s quality, whether it’s great products, whether it’s financial results.”

Rough spots

Akerson did have his share of rough spots, though.

He brashly insulted rivals’ cars, saying Ford Motor Co. “might as well sprinkle holy water” on its Lincoln brand and joking that Mercedes-Benz calls one of its cars the C class “because it’s very average.”

He derided the Toyota Prius as a “geek-mobile” even as the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid fell woefully short of Akerson’s ambitious sales projections. He also struggled to turn around GM’s operations in Europe and drew flak after firing his hand-picked global marketing chief, Joel Ewanick, last year.

Shares of GM stock fell from its IPO price of $33 to as low as $18.80 in July 2012. They reached a post-IPO high of $41.17 this week. They closed today at $40.40, down 1.2 percent.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter


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