Is Fritz Henderson being groomed to be General Motors' next chief executive?
No doubt it's an uncomfortable question for GM's board, which gave Rick Wagoner a vote of confidence on April 2. Rick is still GM's skipper, lashed to the mast as his ship rides out the hurricane.
But it's increasingly clear that Rick does not control his own fate. What would happen this summer if gasoline prices top $4 per gallon? My handy calculator tells me it would cost $126 to fill a Chevy Suburban's gas tank.
How long could GM hold out before it succumbs to yet another ruinous summer blowout sale? As the red ink flowed, GM's board would find itself split between Wagoner's supporters and critics. But who could succeed Wagoner?
Insiders vs. outsiders
Critics would favor an outsider to shake up GM's struggling North American operations. Death to sacred cows! But Wagoner's supporters object that an outsider would require too much time to get up to speed.
That's why Henderson, 47, is such an interesting fellow. As a 22-year GM veteran, he understands how the company operates. Yet Henderson is not tied to the North American strategy that Wagoner has crafted over the past six years or so.
Before he was named CFO in January, Henderson spent nine years overseas running operations in South America, Asia and Europe. Perhaps coincidentally, GM is profitable or breakeven in each of those markets.
I had my first conversation with Fritz five years ago at the Frankfurt auto show. We were attending a stylish party where GM unveiled the Saab shooting brake, yet another interesting concept car GM never produced.
Henderson chatted about his experiences running GM do Brasil from 1997 through 2000. Every morning, he'd get out of bed and wonder what might happen that day. Perhaps the currency would crash. Perhaps the union would strike. Perhaps a gang would kidnap him. Never a dull moment in Brazil.
Executives who can't think quickly - who need six months of committee meetings to make a decision - don't survive in Brazil. One must be prepared for anything, Henderson concluded. By the way, we had that conversation on Sept. 10, 2001.
So is Fritz being groomed to take over GM? Let's consider his current list of chores. Sell GMAC? Check. Negotiate Delphi's bailout? It's a work in progress. Sort out GM's accounting woes with the SEC? Stay tuned.
In short, Henderson is GM's Mr. Fixit. Even if he completes those tasks, GM board members would want to know whether he has the heart to tackle the company's sacred cows.
Henderson would have to decide the fate of "damaged brands" such as Pontiac. He would have to win UAW approval to eliminate the much-maligned Jobs Bank, which requires GM to pay idled hourly workers. And he would have to kill GM's tradition of "badge" engineering.
Some would suggest GM's next CEO should be a car guy, not a bean counter. With his Harvard Business School degree and accountant's training, Fritz is firmly in the bean counters' camp. After Harvard, Henderson got a job in GM's treasurer's office as a senior analyst.
He rose to a senior position at GMAC, served a brief stint at Delphi, then went overseas. Now that he's back in the States, he commutes from his home in Miami, where his wife and two daughters still live.
Henderson is direct, plain-spoken and witty. If he's in the mood, he might regale you with tales of armored limousines in Lagos or Sao Paulo.
In short, Henderson is hardly your stereotyped dry-as-dust accountant. Does he have what it takes to run GM? I think so. Will he get the chance? We'll see.
You may e-mail David Sedgwick at [email protected]