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NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

GM product guy on mission

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GM product guy on mission

BY TOM WALSH

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

At General Motors, in a whirlwind of upheaval ever since Rick Wagoner was fired as CEO last year and the company was retooled in bankruptcy, one key piece of the company has been relatively unchanged.

That would be product development, under the direction of Tom Stephens, 61, a 41-year GM veteran who walks tall and speaks softly but is nobody's corporate toady.

The first two-thirds of current CEO Ed Whitacre's mantra that GM will "design, build and sell the best vehicles in the world," falls under Stephens' wing.

The company's vice chairman for global product operations is a proud gearhead, happiest behind the wheel of new vehicles or tinkering with about 15 vintage cars he co-owns with neighbor Larry Shoup in Farmington Hills.

But he's also itching to see GM reclaim its place atop the global automobile industry in sales and respect, where it was when Stephens signed on in 1969.

While Whitacre has changed most of GM's top management group since becoming CEO in December, Stephens and design chief Ed Welburn are still running the plays on the future product lineup.

"It's not OK to be an also-ran," Stephens said Wednesday after walking through an employee display of 700 classic cars on the grounds at GM's Tech Center.

"I'm starting to feel like more and more people are pulling for us. Bankruptcy is still a stigma," he said, but added that it will fade as the public buys into a product revival that began under Bob Lutz, when Stephens was running powertrain operations.

While GM's new vehicles were winning critical praise, however, the company was losing billions of dollars and burning through cash at a ferocious rate.

The late Jerry York, a GM board member in 2006 and adviser to maverick Las Vegas investor Kirk Kerkorian, who owned 9.9% of GM at the time, was a prophet of doom about GM's finances back then.

York once told me a revealing story about Stephens, which I shared with him Wednesday.

When York, a former finance whiz at Chrysler and IBM, first joined the GM board he asked to meet with a list of key managers. Stephens impressed York with GM's engines and technology, and with his candor. But York felt Stephens was chafing under the constraints of GM's bureaucracy.

The two men got along well and a few months later, York invited Stephens and his wife to a dinner party at York's house. But a few days before the party, York resigned in a huff from the GM board, firing off a letter critical of GM's directors.

York's name was mud among many in GM's hierarchy then, so he was surprised when Stephens phoned to ask whether he was still invited to the party. York said yes, Stephens and his wife came and had a good time.

Stephens confirmed the dinner party story for me Wednesday, while pleading a fuzzy memory on what he'd said about GM's bureaucracy circa 2006.

What the story says to me is that Tom Stephens is a straight-shooting guy far more concerned with building great cars and trucks than with boardroom politics. And that's a good thing.

link:

http://www.freep.com/article/20100729/COL06/7290455/1210/BUSINESS01/GM-product-guy-on-mission

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