Can one man change GM?

A tough-talking, fast-moving CEO is just what the automaker needs, and he's turning the company on its head.

By Kim Peterson Dec 4, 2009 1:13PM
Kim PetersonCan one man truly force change at General Motors, the heavily bureaucratic, slow-moving automaker that finally fell into the hole it had been digging for decades?

Ed Whitacre is sure giving it a try. The 68-year-old Texas retiree is turning GM on its head, axing underperforming executives and pushing everyone to dump the company culture.

His core message? Move faster. Take risk. Fire up.

"We want you to step up. We don't want any bureaucracy," he told employees in a company-wide broadcast. "We're not going to make it if you won't take a risk and step up and be held accountable for it."

And Whitacre is setting the example. Like the time he got into his own car, drove himself to the headquarters of the United Auto Workers and asked to see the union president, according to The Detroit News. How often does that happen in Detroit?

Credit: (© Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)Executives report walking into meetings with a stack of charts, only to have Whitacre (pictured at left) say, "I hope you didn't bring charts. I want to get to know you."

And Whitacre was likely a major factor in getting former chief executive Fritz Henderson to resign last week. Henderson was a lifer at the company, and ousting him removed the last major barrier to Whitacre's complete takeover of management. (Whitacre is now the chairman and interim CEO, and wasted no time shaking up the rest of the executives).

There's a lot to like about Whitacre's take-no-prisoners style of management, but will it work? As one business professor told the Chicago Tribune, Whitacre is walking a fine line between holding GM together and trying to shock it into change.

He's walking that line while taking on enormous business issues at the same time. GM's having a lot of trouble trying to sell its Hummer, Saab, Saturn and Opel/Vauxhall brands. Each one has been a headache for the board.

GM is also considering a 2010 initial public offering, which Whitacre seems to now be publicly backing away from.

And Whitacre is also shepherding three enormously important car releases that will help reshape GM's image: the Cruze, Volt and CTS Coupe. (The board just delayed the Cruze's launch by three months to next fall).

Can Whitacre pull off the change he's desperately forcing on GM? At least he can look to Alan Mulally for inspiration.

Mulally took over Ford (F) a few years ago, and The Detroit News reports that he began changing the company's culture by asking one question: Why?

Why do we have different sets of operating numbers, he asked a finance staffer on the first of his now-fabled "Thursday meetings"? Why did you approve product programs that were never expected to earn a profit? Why do you have separate engineering operations in different regions of the world? And why so many brands when the world's most profitable competitors have comparatively few?

You can see the results of Mulally's management style now, as Ford continues to gain momentum not too long after it was considered the weakest of the Big Three.

Whitacre's job is much more difficult. If he is successful, it could be the management story of the decade.

Tags: GM
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