AP Source: GM Chairman to become permanent CEO

Published: Monday, January 25, 2010 at 11:11 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 25, 2010 at 11:11 a.m.

DETROIT — General Motors Co.'s chairman and interim chief executive, Ed Whitacre Jr., will become the permanent CEO of the automaker, a person briefed on the matter said Monday.

The announcement will be made at an 11:30 a.m. Eastern news conference at GM's downtown Detroit headquarters, the person said.

The person, who asked not to be identified because the announcement had not been made, said Whitacre will say that he is taking the job for good, as well as give an update on GM's business plan.

Whitacre, 68, is a former CEO of telecommunications giant AT&T Inc.

He has been serving as interim CEO since the board ousted former CEO Fritz Henderson on Dec. 1. GM had hired a firm to conduct a global search for a successor.

Whitacre often says in a folksy Texas drawl that he knows little about cars. But he's already shaken up the company by hiring a new chief financial officer and transferring the old one to China, firing the Chevrolet and Buick-GMC brand managers, combining sales and marketing and consolidating control of GM's core North American market under one executive.

He also seems impatient to spur the plodding culture of GM, where decision by committee, an isolated upper management and fear of risk produced mediocre cars for years.

He wants to increase GM's sales and market share while shifting the company's focus to cars from trucks. And he aims to repay $8.1 billion in U.S. and Canadian government loans by the end of June.

Although GM had hired the search firm, there were strong signs that Whitacre would take the job permanently, or at least serve as CEO until the company is on solid enough ground to sell stock to the public in an effort to repay its government loans.

GM owes the U.S. government $52 billion that it used to survive and emerge from bankruptcy protection last year.

At his first meeting with GM's top executives after being named chairman last summer, Whitacre candidly said he likes to be in charge.

"I don't know how to be a chairman and not a CEO," a person at the meeting remembers Whitacre saying.

But he also has told employees and reporters that he would rely heavily on former Wall Street analyst Stephen Girsky and Vice Chairman Bob Lutz for advice in running the company.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management, said it was no secret that Whitacre wanted the CEO job when Henderson was ousted. He said it would have been difficult for anyone to take the post with Whitacre managing as chairman.

"The only surprise is that he wasn't transparent about his plans in the beginning. Why didn't he just assume command then?" Sonnenfeld asked. "His ambitions were clear from the beginning when he pulled the rug from beneath an extremely competent CEO."

Henderson, Sonnenfeld said, was leading a "remarkably, breathtakingly successful turnaround," yet was relieved of his command.

Whitacre, he said, retired too young and was looking for ways to spend his free time. Whitacre has said he was passing time using a bulldozer to clear brush at his Texas ranch.

Earlier this month the GM board hired Microsoft Corp. CFO Chris Liddell to take the same post at GM, and Whitacre said Liddell would be a candidate to take the CEO post permanently.

Whitacre was chairman and chief executive of AT&T and its predecessor companies from 1990 to 2007. During his tenure, he led the company through several acquisitions and sales.

Whitacre also sits on the boards of Exxon Mobil Corp. and the railroad company Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.

In a wide-ranging talk with reporters at GM's Detroit headquarters earlier this month, Whitacre predicted that GM would be profitable this year, although he said that was dependent on the economy and other factors.

A full-year profit for GM, which left bankruptcy protection in July, would be the company's first since 2004 when it made $2.7 billion. It has posted more than $88 billion in losses since then.

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