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NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

Henderson never fit in at GM helm

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Henderson never fit in at GM helm

BY MARK PHELAN

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

The ice under GM CEO Fritz Henderson's feet began to look thin when the company's board of directors overruled his oft-repeated preference to sell a controlling interest in its Opel operations, but Henderson had been on a slippery slope since the day he replaced Rick Wagoner this spring.

Under Chairman and now Chief Executive Ed Whitacre, GM's board has stamped its mark on the company with a series of swift decisions. Henderson thought he had at least until the end of this month to secure his job -- and GM's recovering U.S. sales were an early vindication of his leadership. He didn't, and the board's decision Tuesday to keep its struggling Swedish Saab brand on life support for another month may have been the final straw.

Henderson had publicly said one of GM's past failures had been a reluctance to pull the plug on failing operations. He made it clear he wouldn't hesitate to shut Saab down if GM couldn't find a buyer for the quirky Swedish brand. We may never know if he entered the board meeting Tuesday expecting to close the doors on Saab, but the brand's one-month reprieve looks like yet another instance of the board listening to his counsel and going its own way.

Bolstered by Whitacre's take-charge attitude and board member Steven Girsky's profound understanding of the auto industry, GM's board has put away the rubber stamp.

Although the Opel and Saab sales did not go as Henderson envisioned, he can't be held responsible for GM's failed attempt to sell Saturn. GM spent months working with Roger Penske to save the brand and its dealers, only to have Renault-Nissan pull the plug at the last minute by canceling its promise to provide Saturn with vehicles.

In very un-GM-like fashion, the board recently voted to postpone the sales launch of the vital 2011 Chevrolet Cruze compact by three months to ensure that the car would offer a headline-grabbing 40-m.p.g. EPA rating.

Henderson's exit may smooth GM's negotiations for European loans to restructure Opel and Vauxhall. Henderson was lightly regarded by GM's European managers and workers.

In meetings with GM employees, Whitacre told the engineers and designers creating new cars to contact him directly when they see management making a decision that will put a subpar vehicle on the road. It remains to be seen whether he still listens now that he's part of that management team.

GM's new board members -- appointed by the U.S. government and the UAW, GM's largest stockholders -- always made it clear they wanted a complete break from the insular, unimaginative culture that ruled GM for decades. They began that process when they ousted Wagoner, but it was clear they never had complete faith in Henderson, who had been Wagoner's hand-picked lieutenant.

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