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CFO learns of GM from inside

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CFO learns of GM from inside

Liddell wanted challenge Detroit job offered



The new chief financial officer at General Motors described the automaker's financial operations as being in reasonable shape, a far cry from the derision leveled by the Obama auto task force's former chief following the company's bankruptcy last year.

"The financial organization here is not as bad as it was characterized," Chris Liddell, the new GM CFO, told reporters Wednesday. "Certainly it's in a rebuilding process, as in fact a large part of the business is," the ex-Microsoft CFO said.

He said he was "reasonably heartened" by the staff, saying there were some "very good" people while some areas must be strengthened.

Former auto task force head Steven Rattner, in a Fortune essay last year, called the division "perhaps the weakest finance operation any of us had ever seen in a major company."

Liddell, who became CFO in January, seemed confident about GM's future.

GM faces a reasonable chance of turning a profit this year and could go public again during the second half of 2010 if conditions are right, he said.

Snowtires on his Ferrari

Liddell put snow tires on his Ferrari.

He's not the type to drive his super-hot sports car only on a sunny weekend.

No, Liddell said, it was his daily ride to work as CFO at Microsoft.

"I've never understood why people would buy a beautiful car like that and then stick it in the garage," he said.

He became GM CFO in January and has turned his attention to Detroit sheet metal.

Along with working to make the automaker profitable again, he's learning about the company from the inside.

He's currently driving a Cadillac Escalade and hopes to soon get into the Chevrolet Volt, the extended-range electric car slated for showrooms later this year.

"I want to drive everything that our customers drive," Liddell said.

There had been speculation that Liddell would leave Microsoft to become a CEO at another company.

In fact, when his departure was announced at Microsoft in November, he said in a statement that he was looking at a number of opportunities to expand his career beyond "being a CFO."

Liddell and Mark Reuss, who was made GM's North America president in December, are seen as competing for the CEO spot when GM Chairman and CEO Whitacre leaves, one person familiar with the situation told the Free Press.

Asked about his ambitions to be chief executive, Liddell sidestepped the issue, saying he is focused on the job at hand.

"It's way, way too early to even be speculating on anything like that," he said.

Liddell, a New Zealand native, earned an engineering degree from the University of Auckland and a master of philosophy from Oxford University. Prior to Microsoft, he worked as CFO at International Paper.

He had other options, but said coming to Detroit was an easy choice.

"This was the hardest job, this was the least amount of pay and would be the toughest situation of all the ones I was looking at," Liddell joked.

But, he said, turning serious, "this was far above the most interesting, challenging and important."

He began talking with then-CEO Fritz Henderson last fall about the possibility and immediately liked the leadership style of Whitacre, who assumed the chief executive duties when Henderson resigned in December.

Liddell said he keeps in touch with Henderson, noting they recently had lunch.

One of the first changes facing Liddell is a requirement to complete GM's fresh-start accounting by the end of March.

He seemed optimistic about the year ahead.

"I think we have a reasonable chance of being profitable this year," Liddell said.

He declined to give further specifics.

Whitacre said previously that he hoped GM would be profitable this year.

Liddell suggested that GM operations in China and Brazil are profitable. Not surprisingly, he said, GM's European operations remain a challenge. "North America," he said, is "somewhere in the middle."

He didn't want to be nailed down on a date for selling stock in the company to the public again, saying it depends on several factors, such as a good economy.

If those conditions are in place, he said it is possible that GM could go public in the second half of this year. "The timing has to be right," he said.



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