July 11, 2009 in Nation/World

CEO vows leaner GM will become smarter, too

Tom Krisher And Ken Thomas Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

GM CEO Fritz Henderson speaks at a news conference Friday in Detroit.
(Full-size photo)

DETROIT – General Motors completed an unusually quick exit from bankruptcy protection Friday with ambitions of making money and building cars people are eager to buy.

Once the world’s largest and most powerful automaker, new GM is now leaner, cleansed of massive debt and burdensome contracts that would have sunk it without federal loans.

But GM, whose 40 days under court supervision was far shorter than anyone predicted, faces the worst auto sales slump in a quarter-century.

At a news conference, CEO Fritz Henderson said the revamped automaker will be faster and more responsive to customers than the old one. It will generate cash and repay billions in government loans ahead of a 2015 deadline.

The new company will build more cars and trucks that consumers want and launch them faster than in the past, the CEO said. GM also announced plans to experiment with auctioning new cars on eBay, expanding on an existing partnership covering certified used vehicles.

“We recognize that we’ve been given a rare second chance at GM, and we are very grateful for that. And we appreciate the fact that we now have the tools to get the job done,” he said.

Known for sluggish decision-making process and bloated management ranks, GM will create a single, eight-member executive committee to speed up day-to-day decision-making, replacing two senior leadership forums.

Henderson, 50, said General Motors Corp. will streamline its bureaucratic management structure, cutting U.S. salaried employment by 20 percent, or 6,150 positions, by the end of 2009. The cuts include 450 executive jobs.

Henderson, who was promoted to chief executive in March, will run the global company and oversee its North American operations. GM’s former chief operating officer, Henderson was chosen when President Barack Obama said former CEO Rick Wagoner’s restructuring plans didn’t go far enough.

Top executives at the new company will focus on business results, new vehicles, brands and consumers.

Bob Lutz, a legendary industry executive, was “unretiring” to become a vice chairman responsible for creative elements of products, marketing and customer relationships, Henderson said. Lutz, 77, had previously planned to retire at the end of the year after more than four decades in the auto business.

Nick Reilly, who has served as GM’s Asia-Pacific president, will become executive vice president of GM’s international operations based in Shanghai, China.

The new company will focus on customers, cars and culture.

“If we don’t get this right, nothing else is going to work,” Henderson said at GM’s Detroit headquarters. “Business as usual is over at General Motors.”

The automaker is launching a “Tell Fritz” Web site to allow owners and the public to share their concerns with senior management, and Henderson plans to go out on the road every month.

He said GM plans to partner with eBay in California to allow consumers to bid on vehicles just as they would in a typical eBay auction. They could also choose a “Buy it Now” option to purchase the car at a set price. Dealers would still distribute the cars. A deal between eBay and GM hasn’t been completed yet, however. “As a culture, General Motors needs to be prepared to experiment and adjust,” Henderson said.

New Chairman Edward Whitacre Jr. said GM’s trip through bankruptcy protection had been challenging. “There have been a lot of long hours, there have been a shuttering of plants, there have been painful layoffs.”

Whitacre told reporters after the news conference he expected to have GM’s new 13-member board in place in about three weeks.

GM, in a viability plan presented to the government, said it would break even before interest and taxes next year, and be slightly above break-even for 2011 on a pretax basis. “Sitting here today, I don’t have any reason to disbelieve those numbers,” Henderson said, giving no details of when the company would make a net profit.

The company’s logo will remain blue with white underlined GM letters, although the company had considered changing the background to green to symbolize an environmental focus. GM has no plans to change the background, Henderson said.

He said the U.S. government, which owns a majority stake in GM, has vowed that it would not get involved in day-to-day decisions.

The Treasury Department released a statement Friday afternoon crediting GM’s restructuring with saving both the automaker and “tens of thousands” of American jobs.

“The hard work of charting a path to viability now rests with GM’s board and management,” Treasury said in its statement. “But we are confident that we remain on track to ultimately see returns on these taxpayer investments.”

GM received $19 billion to $20 billion more in federal aid on Friday, the remainder of the $50 billion it will receive, Henderson said. A large part of the money will be held in escrow.

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