Departing Akerson instilled 'the spirit of winning'

CEO's legacy: Strong profits, products

Departing Akerson instilled 'the spirit of winning'

Outgoing CEO Dan Akerson told employees last week: "This is a great company again."
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DETROIT -- Dan Akerson's tenure as General Motors chairman and CEO began suddenly and will end almost as abruptly.

Akerson got the job in 2010 by virtue of being the only one of the board of directors to volunteer when they were caught off guard by Ed Whitacre's decision to step down months before the initial public offering. Akerson, whose wife found out she has cancer, will leave next month, nearly a year sooner than he had been planning.

"He came in right at a very precarious time," Mary Barra, who will replace Akerson Jan. 15, told employees at a town hall-style meeting last week, "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."

GM, after more than three years with Akerson at the helm, is in significantly better shape, though some may argue that the seeds for the improvement were sown before he arrived in Detroit.

The former U.S. Navy officer and telecommunication executive inherited a company that had been handed a $50 billion federal bailout and cleansed of its debt in bankruptcy court. His task was to steer the automaker on a path that would keep it from slipping back into bad habits.

"This is a great company again," Akerson told employees last week at the meeting. "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 Barra, "take it across the ocean."

Besides his penchant for maritime metaphors, here are five aspects of Akerson's reign that he will be remembered for in Detroit, the halls of the U.S. Treasury and GM dealerships around the world.

2014 Impala: Praised by Consumer Reports.

> The IPO


Akerson guided GM through one of the largest initial public stock offerings in U.S. history. Although the company filed its paperwork for the offering before Akerson took over, he was charged with selling the new GM to bankers and investors who had a dim view of Detroit's auto industry, and he would be first in line for the blame if it was a flop.

It wasn't all smooth sailing for shareholders, as the stock fell from its IPO price of $33 to close as low as $18.80 in July 2012. But last week, the shares reached a record high since the IPO of $41.17.

> Government Motors


Akerson was in charge for about three quarters of the time that the government owned a stake in GM. The revelation that he would step down came the morning after the Treasury announced that it had sold its final shares.

He was appointed to the GM board in July 2009 as a representative of the Treasury, and he said it was out of a sense of duty to his country, whose taxpayers owned 60 percent of GM at the time, that he took the CEO job a year later.

Although Akerson and other GM executives said the Obama administration never played a role in managing the company, they couldn't shake questions about the uncomfortable relationship between Detroit and Washington. During a congressional hearing investigating battery fires in the Chevrolet Volt, Akerson said the car had been turned into a "political punching bag," a role that he often found himself playing as well.

> Black ink


GM has been profitable every quarter under Akerson, an accomplishment none of his living predecessors can claim. In all, the company generated net income of about $16 billion under his watch.

Akerson often spoke of GM's obsession with maintaining a "fortress balance sheet," and it paid off as the company regained its investment-grade debt rating this year. He also resisted the temptation to chase sales volume in ways that didn't contribute to the bottom line.

Even as GM's U.S. market share fell to an 88-year low in 2012, money kept rolling in by the billions. Akerson struggled to turn around GM's operations in Europe, but the North American profit machine more than made up for those losses.

> Blunt talk


Early on, Akerson's tendency to openly speak his mind, including lobbing insults at rivals' cars, didn't go over well.

He said Ford Motor Co. "might as well sprinkle holy water" on its Lincoln brand and joked 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.

> Better cars


Whitacre, in his book published this year, recalled Akerson as extremely vocal in criticizing GM upon joining the board.

Akerson "said he thought GM was one of the worst companies he'd come across in his entire life," Whitacre wrote. "And he was not a fan of GM cars -- he made that crystal clear."

Today, Akerson speaks much 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 two new models for Cadillac made it one of the industry's fastest-growing brands. GM builds three of the six vehicles that last week were named finalists for the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards that will be handed out next month, including the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.

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


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