How Ed Whitacre brought GM back from the brink
January 23, 2013
Days after General Motors went bankrupt, former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre took over as chairman. He found a company paralyzed by old ways and seemingly unable to change. Inside his fight to get GM moving again.
General motors filed for Chapter 11 on June 1, 2009. Eight days later the White House announced that Ed Whitacre would serve as chairman. He had to learn the business fast; six months later he replaced GM lifer Fritz Henderson as CEO. Whitacre himself would be gone after a year, resigning as GM prepared an IPO. He was replaced by Dan Akerson. In American Turnaround: Reinventing AT&T and GM and the Way We Do Business in the USA, published in February by Business Plus, he tells of organizational chaos and a near-fatal lack of urgency. Excerpted below:
In mid-July 2009, I headed out. On the flight to Detroit I had some mixed emotions, I will admit. On the one hand, I felt excited to be going to GM (GM), and very much hoped I could be helpful. But it was also a little scary. I didn't know a soul at the company, didn't know cars, and hadn't stepped foot in Detroit in years.
I touched down and was met by a GM driver. We immediately headed downtown to the Renaissance Center, a mixed retail and office space complex where GM's world headquarters is located. The RenCen was the perfect metaphor for General Motors: overblown, overdone, complicated to the max. I made my way up to the 39th floor for my first meeting of the day with GM's new CEO, Fritz Henderson.
Fritz was hunched over his desk working when I arrived. He welcomed me warmly and said he'd be most willing to help me find out anything I needed to know. Fritz was an encyclopedia of facts and figures. He also knew the global car business cold -- he could quote numbers backward and forward, which was impressive.
I had strong views as to what Fritz needed to do. To get GM back on track and employees reengaged, he was going to have to communicate a clear and compelling vision. How a business is organized is fundamental to me, so I asked for a copy of GM's organizational chart. But Fritz didn't have one. He said GM had done away with them. He was tracking everything in his head.
That was the first red flag.
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