DETROIT -- Michael Burns didn't get the job done during five years as president of General Motors Europe. But a big part of the problem was GM's bizarre European management setup.
GM should use Burns' departure to head Dana Corp. and GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz's interim role in Europe to create a new order.
During Burns' time in Europe the economy never got out of first gear.
He inherited a mess at Opel, a swamp at Saab, and arrived just as Renault and PSA/Peugeot-Citroen were regaining momentum.
Then there was the complex business of managing GM Europe's alliance with Fiat. That occupied Burns for the past four years and may have extended his stay in Europe.
But nothing opened up for Burns at the home office. So it's no surprise he accepted the top job at Dana.
Burns arrived in Zurich in 1998, a time of ridiculous turmoil at GM Europe. An open battle raged between then Zurich-based international boss Louis Hughes and Opel Chairman David Herman in Germany. GM Europe President Richard Donnelly was caught in the crossfire.
Burns successfully eased the dissent and the noise level. But in the process he became the most inconspicuous automaker CEO in Europe.
It is hard to know if it was Burns who was too low-key, or the job. But Burns paid a high price for an organizational decision made in 1986.
Pan-European companies have long struggled with bringing order to sets of national fiefdoms. In 1986, GM moved its headquarters from Rüsselsheim to Zurich. The idea was to reduce Opel's dominance while GM Europe grew elsewhere.
The two-headed approach was never a good idea. It was at the root of the clash between Hughes and Herman. That dispute seemed personal, but the problems were mainly structural.
The president of GM Europe supervises all national operations: Vauxhall, GM Continental in Antwerp, Belgium, GM Spain and the rest. The head of Opel runs a vast manufacturing operation across Europe, but also has sales responsibility in Europe's biggest auto market.
The head of GM Europe is the boss, but is removed from the power base and the loyalties that form in Rüsselsheim.
Once there was talk that current Opel Chairman Carl-Peter Forster would step in at No. 1 in Europe when Burns' stint was over. But GM now looks as though it will keep the current setup. Fritz Henderson moves to Zurich as GM Europe's president in June.
Time for change
A change is needed. The corporation should redesign its lines of authority in Europe and Bob Lutz is the right guy to figure out how. Lutz was once chairman of Ford of Europe. He knows how to organize an American-owned, pan-European automaker.
The heads of GM Europe and Opel ought to work side by side -- in Germany. One should be chief executive, the other chief operating officer -- for all of Europe, not just Opel.
The peculiar top management structure is not entirely to blame for GM's long stretch of disappointing results in Europe. But having the two top executives in the region on the same team couldn't hurt.