In two years, Ed Whitacre has gone from running the largest U.S. telecommunications company to the largest U.S. automaker.
And the new interim CEO of General Motors Co. has used his reputation as a bulldog and deal maker to do the job.
Whitacre, 68, was named chairman of GM's board of directors in June, replacing interim Chairman Kent Kresa. On Tuesday he said the board had accepted Fritz Henderson's resignation as CEO, and Whitacre will fill the position until an international search for a new leader is completed.
Most recently, Whitacre was CEO of AT&T and its predecessor companies from 1990 to 2007. He retired after seeing the largest U.S. telecommunications service provider through seven large acquisitions over a decade.
The Texas-born executive, who spent 44 years with AT&T, was the telecommunications industry's best-known deal maker. His biggest was AT&T's $86 billion acquisition of BellSouth Corp in 2006.
“If he's with you, he's your strongest supporter,” says one person who knows Whitacre. “If he's against you, you've got a serious problem.”
Upon arriving at GM, Whitacre gave Henderson his qualified support. This summer, Whitacre told Bloomberg News that Henderson was the right leader for GM “at this point in time.”
Most sources who know Whitacre had described him as supportive of GM. Since the company emerged from federal bankruptcy protection July 10, Whitacre had made several visits to GM's Detroit headquarters and its Warren, Mich., technical and design offices.
He didn't just chat up the top brass, insiders said. He would conduct what some call “diagonal slice” meetings, talking with everyone -- from midlevel managers to lower managers to salaried employees -- and demanding action.
“He asks them: ‘What do you do? Explain your job to me,' ” a source said earlier this year. “He's very specific to people. He's very hands-on.”
In another hands-on move, Whitacre appeared in GM's “May the Best Car Win” television commercials earlier this year, saying in the spots that at first he had doubts about the company.
‘New guy in town'
Whitacre told Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman in charge of marketing and communications, to spend the money necessary to communicate the company's viability and product strength to the world. Whitacre urged the creation of an attention-grabbing campaign.
“We basically described it over the phone to [Whitacre], and then we sent him a bunch of stuff, and he said: ‘This is exactly what I'm talking about. This is wonderful stuff,' ” Lutz said later. “We wanted a credible new spokesman with a fresh face. We thought: Why not Ed? He's the new guy in town.”
For now, he's also the new guy in charge.
In announcing his new position today, Whitacre said two of his top goals for the company are profitability and repaying government loans.
Early in his tenure as chairman, Whitacre said GM would return to profitability “sooner than most people think.”
“Yes, we have a profitability plan, and we're going to get there,” he said in August.
Whitacre also serves on the boards of ExxonMobil Corp. and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. He holds a degree in industrial engineering from Texas Tech University.
Jesse Snyder and Reuters contributed to this report.