As important as it was for Jerry York to join the General Motors board of directors, it was nearly as significant that Stan O'Neal left.
No, not because the Merrill Lynch CEO is a bad guy.
E. Stanley O'Neal has been a capable GM director for five years. Some had thought he might emerge as a strong boardroom leader when stuff really hit the fan, just as former Procter & Gamble CEO John Smale was 15 years ago.
Now, it won't happen. But in leaving, O'Neal displayed leadership by avoiding possible conflicts of interest, whether real or imagined.
Yes, leaving when he did takes O'Neal out of harm's way for the board's decision to whack the dividend, which will be unpopular with some investors and could prompt the powerhouse Wall Street firm to take action on GM's stock.
But more important, his exit also clears the table for the restructuring deal among GM, Delphi Corp. and the UAW.
That's because Stan O'Neal is the brother of Rodney O'Neal, the 52-year-old COO of Delphi Corp. and the exec most likely to succeed Steve Miller as CEO after the turnaround master works his magic and moves on.
Once upon a time, most people wouldn't have thought twice about having a COO's brother on the board of his company's biggest customer -- especially when the brothers are as intelligent and capable as the O'Neals.
But in these days of Enron and Sarbanes-Oxley -- when regulators and prosecutors subject every deal to scrutiny akin to a proctological exam -- you just don't want to give anybody any reason to raise an eyebrow or suspect a conflict of interest. As it is, there will be enough grief from union activists and regulators to go around.
Now, with the moves made to cut the dividend, reduce executive salaries and trim the health care benefits of salaried retirees -- which are right out of Jerry York's playbook -- the restructuring talks can get serious.
You may e-mail Edward Lapham at [email protected]