DETROIT -- As a banking adviser to General Motors when he was at Morgan Stanley, Dan Ammann got an upfront view of GM's spiral into bankruptcy in 2009 and subsequent restructuring.
Now, more than two years into his job as CFO, Ammann acknowledges that he had only a faint idea at the time of how complex GM is.
"You realize how big and complicated and integrated a business it is," he told Automotive News last week. "That's part of the opportunity we have as a company, to run it like one big global car company instead of a lot of individual small car companies."
Ammann, a 41-year-old New Zealand native, is part of a nucleus of relatively young executives charged with carrying out CEO Dan Akerson's vision of a more nimble GM. He says GM is "reasonably well on its way" to streamlining the bureaucracy that has hampered its attempts to integrate operations across divisions and regions. It's taking control of its information technology systems from outside vendors and overhauling an accounting system that once required repeated earnings restatements.
More important, he says, GM is catching up with other automakers in its use of global platforms and parts sourcing, which will save money and speed up vehicle development.
"None of these are particularly revolutionary concepts," he acknowledges. "These are things that we have not been as far along on. We have a tremendous opportunity to better use that scale than we have."
Ammann, GM's CFO since April 2011, approaches the job with car-guy bona fides, a passion that was lacking in the GM finance enterprise of old. He enjoys weighing in at design sessions and product-portfolio reviews and is a certified test driver on the Nurburgring Nordschleife racetrack in Germany.
He used his first bonus from Morgan Stanley to buy a 1961 Cadillac Series 62 convertible, a tailfinned classic that he keeps at his family's home in New York, where he returns most weekends.
He's nonchalant about his passion for product, almost as if he was unaware of the bean-counter culture that has pervaded GM finance.
"If you don't have a natural interest in the business of designing and building cars, it's not going to work," he says.
In 2010 Ammann left his job at Morgan Stanley to become GM's treasurer and was a key architect of GM's November 2010 IPO. Five months later, at age 38, he was thrust into the CFO spot when then-CFO Chris Liddell left abruptly.
Ammann has helped build what the company calls a "fortress balance sheet." It carries almost no debt and has amassed $27.2 billion in cash and marketable securities. The cushion allows GM to invest steadily in vehicle development -- about $7.4 billion last year -- even in a sharp downturn, Ammann says.
GM has posted a net profit in each of the last 13 quarters, bringing in more than $18 billion over that stretch despite losing billions of dollars in Europe. Ammann says GM is on a path to break even in Europe by the middle of the decade, even though he sees little signs of an economic turnaround there.
Much of GM's future profit growth hinges on North America and the rollout of its redesigned full-sized pickups, which begins next month. RBC Capital Markets analyst Joseph Spak says stronger pickup volumes and pricing should translate into more than $1 billion in additional profit next year.
In his unflappable fashion, Ammann declined to get into specifics about the impact of the pickups on GM's bottom line.
"It'll be a tailwind for us," Ammann said with a smile.
And if the launch hits a snag?
"We'll have less of a tailwind."