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Akerson aims for a more nimble, 'urgent' GM

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Akerson aims for a more nimble, 'urgent' GM

Christina Rogers / The Detroit News

Detroit -- General Motors Co. new CEO Daniel Akerson said today the Treasury Department doesn't plan to divest its ownership stake in the automaker all at once but the company looks forward to the government's full exit. The government's exit from the automaker could take several years, he added.

"It is a goal of this company...I don't think that is going to be done in one fell swoop," he told a group of auto reporters this morning at the Renaissance Center, GM's headquarters in Detroit, in his first public comments since taking the helm on Sept. 1. He said he doesn't see GM as "Government Motors" and instead hopes the company will one be known as "Global Motors" for its worldwide presence.

Akerson, also stressed the importance of speed and urgency, noting technology continues to evolve the industry and the company can't view the competition as "static."

Akerson, GM's fourth CEO in less than two years, steps in at a pivotal time for GM, which filed paperwork last month for an initial public offering -- its first in a half century -- and will soon embark on a worldwide tour to pitch itself to investors. He also will preside over the launch of the much-hyped Chevrolet Volt later this year, the company's first mass-produced, plug-in electric hybrid.

He said no significant management changes were planned.

"I like the team that's on the field. I think we have a good team that's preformed well," Akerson said. He will assume the board chairmanship starting Jan. 1.

Akerson, who wore a navy blue suit and yellow tie, sat at a large conference table surrounded by reporters, taking questions one-by-one. The meeting in Tower 300 at the Renaissance Center lasted about an hour and spanned a wide range of topics, including upcoming union negotiations, his views on the $85 million federal bailout and GM's challenges in Europe.

Akerson was careful to avoid any talk of the IPO. Company officials are barred from speaking about it publicly while regulators review the filing.

He predicted some continuity with GM chairman Ed Whitacre, who stepped down as CEO Aug. 31 after he told the board he couldn't commit to staying as CEO for an extended period. "I think Ed and I share a lot of common traits in our leadership style," he said. But he later added: "My job is different". Borrowing a nautical metaphor , he said his task is to get the "ship underway."

He said the company still is working to transform itself since its 2009 exit from bankruptcy as a government-sponsored enterprise and noted GM has benefited from the experience, which allowed it to shed nearly $30 billion in debt.

When asked about criticism about having a combined CEO/chairman position, Akerson said: "There are different models. I've seen it both ways. It was the determination of our board this was the best solution at this time."

Akerson, a Republican, acknowledged the controversial $49.5 billion bailout of GM, saying he didn't think it was a political decision. "I think it was the right decision, not right politically, not left politically. It was the right decision," he said.

The government swapped about $43 billion of its stake for a 61 percent stake in GM. "The acid bath of bankruptcy has given this company unbelievable new opportunities and the financial wherewithal to capitalize on them," he said.

His comments were peppered with personal anecdotes, and at times, humor. Akerson noted his parents drove GM cars "until the day they died" but an incident about 20 years ago with a GM vehicle caused him to switch to foreign automakers. When asked about the incident, he replied: "I rather not say" but noted he now owns two Cadillacs.

Akerson has until now refrained from saying much publicly about his leadership plans for GM. He addressed employees last week -- his first major companywide communication -- in a 45-minute discussion held at the Renaissance Center and webcasted to GM facilities worldwide. Akerson also has met with top United Auto Workers leadership and noted the importance of union collaboration in a letter sent to employees before Labor Day weekend.

The unions begin negotiating a new contract with Detroit's Big Three next year -- but they are barred from striking until 2015.

Akerson arrived at GM in July 2009 as a Treasury Department representative to the GM's board. The former U.S. Naval Academy graduate is a newcomer to the auto industry but has a deep background in finance and telecommunications.

Formerly a managing director at one of the world's largest private equity firms, the Carlyle Group, Akerson is acquainted with Wall Street and the challenges of turning around troubled companies.

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20100916/AUTO01/9160437/1148/auto01/Akerson-aims-for-a-more-nimble---urgent--GM#ixzz0zjWdVtHo

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Riiiight... I'll believe it when I see it.

Any project from GM that doesn't take 5 years to do... or a product not left to rot on the vine... or a product that can be refreshed for a different bodystyle or sales market in less than a year (2 door Curze or RWD Caprice).

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Akerson foresees a nimble GM

Christina Rogers / The Detroit News

Daniel Akerson has a vision for his General Motors: a nimble, more integrated global competitor with a sense of urgency and a commitment to innovation.

While his predecessors touted a similar strategy, GM's new CEO appears to be turning up the volume, hoping to alter the automaker's image as plodding and suspectible to ambush by its competitors.

"I want to look at who is best in a category ... and I want to have a strategy that says we're going to play offense," he said Thursday in his first extended interview with reporters since taking GM's helm Sept. 1. "You want to do them one better."

Akerson, GM's fourth CEO in less than two years, said that while the U.S. Treasury will remain a stakeholder in the automaker for several years, he doesn't think of it as "Government Motors." Rather, he hopes it some day will be known as "Global Motors" for its worldwide presence.

He's got a big job, and Akerson, 61, steps in at a pivotal time. The automaker filed paperwork last month for an initial public stock offering and will soon embark on a global tour to pitch itself to investors.

Dressed in a navy blue suit and yellow tie, Akerson sat at a large conference table at GM headquarters in the Renaissance Center, fielding questions for an hour.

He emphasized the importance of speed and urgency, noting technology continues to evolve and GM can't view the competition as "static." He vowed to up the ante on vehicle styling and quality. And he advocated more humor in GM advertising.

"I think humor sells," said Ackerson, a former equity investment executive known as a hard-nosed manager. "You can't take yourself too seriously."

Until Thursday, Akerson hadn't said much, publicly, about his vision for GM, although he has addressed employees, met with managers and spoken with top United Auto Workers leaders.

Range of topics covered

The U.S. Naval Academy graduate spoke to reporters evenly and confidently, looking them in the eye and often gesturing for emphasis. Akerson was asked about a wide range of topics:

He envisions no further changes in GM's management team and symbolically stated his commitment to GM by declaring his family is moving to the area.

He drives a Cadillac CTS -- "the best sedan I've ever driven" -- but revealed that he defected from GM products to foreign cars some years back because of an unspecified "problem."

Investment in green technologies, such as electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells, will be a centerpiece of the new GM, as will continuing the work started by former executives to develop all vehicles globally -- a strategy that is paying off for Ford Motor Co.

And although GM continues to lose money on its German-based Adam Opel GmbH brand, Akerson said it's a important element of the company that continues to make progress in Europe. "We've made huge improvements in the Opel in the last year," he said.

While he answered directly on some issues, Akerson adhered to federal regulations by carefully avoiding a detailed discussion of GM's planned initial public stock offering, expected yet this year.

He said it will take a couple of years for American taxpayers, who hold a 61 percent stake in GM, to recoup the $49.5 billion they spent on the bailout. That, he said, means several rounds of stock sales.

"I don't think that's going to be in one fell swoop," he said. "So we have to post those (corporate earnings) numbers and provide some consistent results. Over the next couple of years, that will happen."

Akerson also spoke vaguely about next year's UAW contract talks and GM's hiring plans, noting stronger demand for its vehicles eventually will translate into jobs.

"Beyond that, I'd rather not comment," he said.

Hands-on approach praised

Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J., said that while aspects of Akerson's vision aren't new, his hands-on approach and background in finance put him in a good position to deliver.

"We've all heard these messages before," Phillippi said. But he noted that Akerson is going to be more aggressive.

"He's very, very hands-on," Phillippi said. "Whitacre is very, very hands-off."

In bring more cohesion to GM's global presence, Phillippi described Akerson as taking a page from Ford CEO Alan Mulally's "book of One Ford" -- a clear and unifying corporate strategy.

"In effect, he's characterizing this as One GM, but we've all under the impression that was the direction GM was headed," Phillippi said.

As the former managing director at Carlyle Group, one of the world's largest private equity firms, Akerson is acquainted with Wall Street and the challenges of turning around troubled companies. He's a newcomer to the auto industry but has a deep background in finance and telecommunications.

Akerson arrived at GM in July 2009 as a Treasury Department representative on GM's board of directors.

In addition to CEO, Akerson will take over for Whitacre as board chairman Jan. 1. Whitacre stepped down as CEO Aug. 31 after he told the board he couldn't commit to staying on for an extended period.

Akerson said Thursday he's here for the long haul. "I don't view myself as transitional," he said.

Even so, Akerson did predict some continuity between Whitacre's tenure and his own. The two, he noted, have some similar leadership traits but different roles to fill.

"Ed did a terrific job righting the ship," Akerson said. "My job is a different job. I have to -- to use a nautical metaphor -- get the ship under way."

"We've established a sound foundation," he added. "Now, we have to move it forward."

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20100917/AUTO01/9170339/1148/auto01/Akerson-foresees-a-nimble-GM#ixzz0zn5n3bQ3

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