BRUSSELS - Another frustrated Adam Opel AG chairman is leaving - one more victim of what may be the toughest job in the European auto industry.
Taking the blame for heavy losses, American Robert Hendry said he would step down in March, two years before his contract expires. The seventh executive in 20 years will then take over General Motors' German subsidiary.
Why is the job so difficult? It's more than just Opel's recent product problems and the hugely competitive German market, say former and current Opel insiders who were interviewed.
They say the problems include:
GM's European organization, which puts the heads of Opel and GM Europe into conflict.
The appointment of short-term, short-sighted U.S. executives who don't know Europe.
GM's failure to install engineers in the top job.
Too much internal politics.
For his part, Hendry says that since he joined Opel in 1998, he has pushed for the company to be run by a 'European-born, German national.' He also points to political strife as a big reason for leaving. But he strongly disputes complaints that he doesn't know the European market.
Insiders, meanwhile, say the chairman of Opel doesn't have enough authority; the real power lies at GM Europe in Zurich and at corporate headquarters in Detroit. Opel's boss must satisfy American supervisors while managing a thoroughly German carmaker.
Forster leads candidates
Carl-Peter Forster, former head of manufacturing for BMW AG, is widely expected to succeed Hendry. But Hendry says there are other candidates. A German last led Opel 12 years ago. Since then, there have been four Americans, including Hendry.
Lou Hughes, boss from April 1989 to June 1992, and David Herman, who held the job from July 1992 to June 1998, had some great years in Russelsheim.
But each had to contend with vicious internal politics. They often quarreled after Hughes was promoted to the top jobs at GM Europe and later GM International, which was established in Zurich.
Many past and present Opel executives blame Hendry's problems - and those of some of his predecessors - on GM's organizational structure in Europe. They say the internal disputes in the 1990s that became unusually public resulted from GM's two-headed approach in Europe. The GM Europe boss oversees the chairman of Opel.
'The essential problem is the organization of work within GM,' said a senior executive. 'It was never a question of globalize or don't globalize. It isn't that simple.'
GM Europe was created in 1986 to shift power away from Germany. European headquarters were moved from Russelsheim to neutral Zurich. GM Europe sets financial and sales targets, and Opel must execute them. But Germany is GM's largest market in Europe, and the Opel boss oversees a vast manufacturing operation that stretches across Europe.
When Hughes went to Zurich, Opel executives accused him of losing sight of Opel concerns and robbing it of manpower and investment to further GM's global expansion.
The clash between Hughes in Zurich and Herman at Opel led to the dismantling of the Hughes-led GM International Operations. Hughes left Europe in 1998 and later resigned from GM. Herman also was removed and now runs GM's tiny operations in Russia.
Gary Cowger, a manufacturing expert who ran GM's Mexico operations, was appointed Opel chairman in June 1998. But he was transferred four months later to Detroit, in the wake of a bitter strike, to mend troubles with the UAW.
`Power will shift'
Hendry became chairman after the Opel supervisory board rejected Peter Hanenberger, a German and former head of Opel product development. Hanenberger was Hughes' No. 2 at GM International and a target of heavy criticism. He now runs GM's Holden subsidiary in Australia.
Whether GM will change its structure with the arrival of Hendry's successor is unclear. But there is a new factor: last year's alliance with Fiat Auto.
Once the partners have integrated powertrains, platforms and purchasing, Opel's role will change dramatically, said a Fiat insider. 'The alliance will control 80 percent of what we do,' he said. 'Opel will assemble cars and market them. Power will shift out of Germany.'
Some critics say the Americans sent to Europe by GM don't have the experience and long-term perspective that bosses in Europe need.
When he took over on Nov. 1, 1998, Hendry was viewed as a turnaround specialist. He had led a revival of Saab Automobile, the Swedish car maker. Until March 2000, Hendry was CEO of Saab, in addition to his duties at Opel. He still oversees Saab as managing director.
But at Opel, Hendry failed to increase market share and restore profits. Opel reported an operating loss of $472 million in 2000 compared with a loss of $132 million in 1999. Its market share in Germany slid from 13.8 percent in 1999 to 12.2 percent last year.
An unexpected downturn in Germany took its toll. Auto sales in Germany slipped 12 percent; Opel dropped 20 percent, or about 100,000 sales. That slip was the difference between breaking even and a loss, Hendry said last week.
But like other Americans before him, Hendry quickly came under criticism from German locals.
One gripe: Hendry gave overly optimistic sales projections, despite warnings from other board members. Another said that Hendry lost credibility when 'he kept saying the Omega would get the new super V-8 engine and then GM killed the project.'
Some Germans view GM Europe President Michael Burns - like his predecessor, Richard Donnelly - as another American executive on temporary assignment. 'The feeling was that men like Burns do not have the understanding necessary to run GM Europe,' said an executive.
But Hendry and Burns inherited big problems. Opel vehicles developed quality problems in the late 1990s and the brand's image slipped.
'Hendry ended up cutting costs and programs to make up for shortfalls in revenue,' said one executive who worked closely with him. 'People got upset because they didn't have resources. But many feel Bob could have done the job if he had had the power.'
Having a German in the top job will help. Hendry's successor will be able to communicate with the unions, which control half of the supervisory board. Hendry's failure to learn German has been criticized. Both Hughes and Herman were fluent.
The last German to head Opel was Horst Herke, who was chairman from February 1986 until March 1989. He took over from the legendary Ferdinand Beickler, chairman from 1982 to 1986. Beickler was preceded by six Americans, including former GM CEO Robert Stempel.
'But it isn't a question of their passports, it's how they do the job,' said a German Opel executive. 'Lou Hughes is an American but was more German than some of his predecessors because of his great antenna. He led us into eastern Germany. Opel became No. 1 in Europe. He did an amazing job.'
One senior Opel executive said the company's CEOs struggle not because they are Americans but because they aren't engineers.
'There are no anti-American sentiments inside Opel,' said the executive. 'But Opel lacks engineering skills in its top management. Only at the third level down from the top can top-qualified engineers can be found.'
He said that too many Opel CEOs have been 'international service persons, without any feeling for the brand or even the job they are doing.'
'They are usually American, with a financial education,' he said. 'Since they know that they will stay only for a short time, their objectives are too focused on their own career, not on Opel.'
Wim Oude Weernink contributed to this report