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NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

GM CEO Akerson okay with U.S. government role, for now

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GM CEO Akerson okay with U.S. government role, for now

Investors' patience doesn't last forever, new GM chief cautions

BY CHRISSIE THOMPSON

FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Unlike his predecessor, General Motors CEO Dan Akerson says he knows the government will be a shareholder even after the initial public stock offering. And for a few years, that is OK with him.

"I do think we have the goodwill of many American consumers," he told reporters Thursday. Still, he conceded, "I don't think any investor group has infinite patience."

The new CEO aligns with his predecessor, Ed Whitacre, in his emphasis on faster decision-making. But Whitacre, 68, also wanted the government to shed all its 304 million GM shares at breakneck speed.

"We want the government out. Period. We don't want to be known as Government Motors," Whitacre said last month.

Akerson, 61, is GM's fourth CEO since March 2009. Whitaker presided over several top-level shake-ups, and then stepped down.

Akerson doesn't foresee major executive churning, and he's here for the long term. .

To prove the point, Akerson's wife, Karin, is home shopping this week in metro Detroit.

'Speed is of the Essence

Like Ed Whitacre before him, General Motors CEO Dan Akerson wants faster decisions, faster development of new vehicles and a more aggressive attitude throughout the company.

"To play offense, whether it's in sports or in the military, speed is of the essence," he said Thursday.

But when it comes to selling off the U.S. government's 61% equity stake, Akerson urges patience.

"It's a goal of this company to return that (federal) money," he said Thursday in his first remarks to reporters since becoming CEO Sept. 1. "I don't think that's going to be in one fell swoop. I think that's unrealistic."

Akerson took charge of GM after Whitacre told the board he didn't want to serve as CEO long past the company's initial public offering, tentatively timed for mid-November.

In his nine months at GM's helm, Whitacre streamlined GM's bureaucracy and reduced time spent in meetings. But he also bristled at cynics who called the automaker "Government Motors" and pushed to end the U.S. Treasury's ownership as quickly as possible, even suggesting the government could sell all of its stake in one stock offering.

Akerson seems less sensitive about the external critics.

"I can't tell you, since I took this job, how many people will walk up to me and say, 'We want General Motors to win,' " he said Thursday.

Akerson declined to comment specifically on the initial public offering, citing federal regulations. He said he speaks to Ron Bloom, head of the Obama administration's auto task force, at least every couple of weeks.

Akerson, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, said Whitacre's job was to right GM's listing ship and boost morale. Akerson said his task is to move the ship forward, although he didn't give many specifics about his plan.

"We have to recognize that this company's model today will not sustain itself over the next five, 10 years," he said, adding that GM has to invest in innovative technologies, improve vehicle quality and bring new vehicles to market faster.

He emphasized going into "attack mode," as he did in an employee broadcast last week.

"We shift from being a defensive player to an offensive player," he said. "You can't assume that your competition ... will be static, either. They're moving at the same time."

The key competitive criteria, in his view, are styling, reliability and durability, safety and pricing.

While Akerson said he has told GM's designers what he likes and doesn't like about future vehicles, he said he'll leave styling decisions to design chief Ed Welburn.

"Our products are second-to-none today. I'm convinced of that," Akerson said. "But we do have some work to do."

Akerson can understand firsthand some consumers' distrust of GM vehicles. He grew up in a family that always drove GM vehicles, he said, and he continued that pattern until about 20 years ago. He had a problem with a GM car that he would only say created a "tense situation," and he switched to foreign cars. After joining GM's board, he got a Cadillac CTS, which he called the best sedan he's ever driven. His wife, Karin, turned in her Lexus SUV for a Cadillac SRX crossover.

After the IPO, one of Akerson's next challenges is GM's contract negotiations next fall with the UAW. He declined to say whether he'd be open to restoring wage and benefit concessions workers made ahead of GM's bankruptcy. But he did say the UAW and GM needed to come to an agreement that allowed the company to deliver value.

link:

http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100917/BUSINESS01/9170303/1331/Business01/Akerson-okay-with-U.S.-government-role-for-now&template=fullarticle

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