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GM 'lifer' Henderson finds top spot a slippery slope

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GM 'lifer' Henderson finds top spot a slippery slope

DECEMBER 2, 2009 06:01 CET

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) -- In a 25-year career at General Motors Co., Fritz Henderson followed his predecessor and mentor, Rick Wagoner, through a series of high-profile assignments concluding with the top job.

Now eight months after becoming GM CEO, Henderson has followed Wagoner in an eerily similar fashion -- being ousted by outsiders who say more radical change is needed.

"Fritz is like Rick Wagoner. Unfortunately it's a curse of being around GM too long," said Logan Robinson, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, after Henderson dismissal Tuesday.

Henderson, 51, built his reputation and career as a crack financial manager in a top-down GM organization famous for plodding decision-making and blizzards of powerpoint presentations by executives.

He became CEO in in March after the Obama administration ousted Wagoner to signal that it wanted to see a new direction at GM that would include a fast-track bankruptcy.

'Another GM lifer'

As CEO, Henderson had vowed to shake up GM's culture, but his status as a career-long insider had made analysts skeptical that could be accomplished.

"The No. 1 criticism of Fritz when he was appointed was that he was another GM lifer," said Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst at IHS Global Insight.

"I think the management culture and style in Detroit in particular is quite different than it is for other industries. They are insular, despite their best efforts not to be," she said.

GM's board said after a meeting in Detroit on Tuesday that it had accepted Henderson's resignation.

The company and GM Chairman Ed Whitacre, who takes over as interim CEO, declined to elaborate on that decision, only saying that change was needed.

A person with direct knowledge of the deliberations said GM's board had requested Henderson's resignation.

Whitacre said the search would begin immediately for a permanent successor as CEO.

Analysts said one model for that high-stakes hire would certainly be what Ford Motor Co. did in turning to Boeing Co. executive Alan Mulally.

Mulally's hiring, which some questioned at the time, is now seen as a master stroke for Ford. Under Mulally, Ford has steered clear of a federally funded bankruptcy, unlike GM and Chrysler. It posted a surprise profit of nearly $1 billion in the third quarter.

As impressive, Mulally is seen as having succeeded in taming a corporate culture at the top of Ford once heavily criticized for being riven by factions.

Unexpected start, rocky road

Henderson's tenure as CEO was tumultuous from the start. In the wake of Wagoner's sudden ouster, his first job was to steer GM into a bankruptcy that management of the automaker had feared would fatally undermine its business.

But Henderson quickly became bogged down with the fallout of promised and failed deals -- from the botched sale of GM's Saturn and Saab brands to the board's sudden about-face on the sale of its European Opel brand.

His stature also appeared to take a hit when former Obama administration auto's task force leader, Steve Rattner, sharply criticized the automaker's record of financial management, an area of direct responsibility for Henderson through GM's financial crisis.

Rattner said Henderson had been eager to take on the CEO role at GM but had asked not to be called an "interim" choice, saying that would undermine his chances of success.

Even so, Henderson appeared confident enough about the controversy to joke about it just last month.

At a roast for GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz at a hotel outside Detroit, Henderson had joked that he found himself in "a Rattner's nest" as he tried to do his job.

Henderson, who had taken a pay cut to remain with GM as it moved through its bailout, said shortly after becoming CEO that he was looking forward to the day when GM would repay taxpayers for their $50 billion investment in the automaker.

"One of the saddest days in my career was when we needed to borrow money from the U.S. taxpayer. And I'm quite convinced that one of the happiest days of my career is when we repay it," he told CNN.

In announcing Henderson's departure, Whitacre said the board felt changes were needed to focus GM on the mandate of repaying U.S. and Canadian government investment.

Said Whitacre: "We now need to accelerate our progress toward that goal."

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