No more U.S. aid needed, says GM chief

Fritz Henderson: "If we get our job done, I think the government has an excellent chance of getting a return on its investment."
Fritz Henderson: "If we get our job done, I think the government has an excellent chance of getting a return on its investment." (By Carlos Osorio/associated Press)
By Peter Whoriskey
Thursday, October 29, 2009

General Motors chief executive Fritz Henderson was in Washington on Wednesday visiting with the company's major shareholder -- that is to say, the U.S. government.

Under "any reasonable planning scenario," General Motors will not request more federal aid, Henderson said. "The amount of financing provided was sufficient."

His comments came in a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors in which he expounded on the role of the government in the automaker, the chances that the company will return the $50 billion in government aid, the role of the United Auto Workers, and the future of electric and hydrogen cars.

Some excerpts:

On the interaction between GM and its largest shareholder, the U.S. government:

"I probably talk to Ron Bloom of the automotive task force maybe once a week on some subject. I haven't been to Washington in a couple of months . . . They are the major shareholders, so they do want to be kept informed about how the business is going. But they're not at all involved in how we run the business."

On whether the government will recover all of its $50 billion investment in GM, which is in the form of loans and equity:

"The loans are due in 2015. We are looking at all kinds of ways that would actually accelerate that.

"Then over time the question is, 'How do you realize a return on the equity?' That is a function of how does the company perform. If we get our job done, I think the government has an excellent chance of getting a return on its investment."

On the role of the union, the United Auto Workers:

"My experience in the last 18 months is that they have been much more part of the solution than part of the problem. We've done things with them that were not thought feasible before. I give a lot of credit to the leadership of the UAW for what they've done. That doesn't mean we're free of competitive challenges. We still have plenty of competitive challenges. But the number of major issues which were addressed -- which could not be addressed, but had to get addressed, they were the elephants in the room -- we've dealt with those."

How much will GM's forthcoming electric car, the Volt, cost?

"The price is still to be determined. I have a policy of pricing the vehicle when I get close to the market. I know the cost is close to 40 [thousand]."

What will it take for electric cars to gain a foothold in the market?

"The three things you need are battery costs coming down, motor costs coming down, control costs coming down. That means more people have to do it.

"The more companies that actually develop technologies around electric, the more the supply structure will develop, the better off we'll be. . . . We can't carry the load ourselves. GM can't. No way. We need to have more companies. We source most of these things. We don't do them. We're not in the chemistry business.

"Everybody is trying to solve the problem of range because we have range anxiety. The consumer doesn't want to be strained. We had the same problem with EV1 [an earlier electric car GM experimented with] -- not enough range."

Is GM pulling back on its hydrogen car?

"Are we putting resources into it? Not as much. . . . We spent through the mid part of this decade a reasonably high portion of our research and our development money on hydrogen fuel cells. We put 100 vehicles into the market. Consumers have tested them . . . We've learned a lot. The vehicles work. The issue is always cost, 100 percent cost. [He put the cost of the vehicles at upwards of $400,000.]

"It's still a ways away from commercialization. No question."

Critics have said the GM culture is too insular. None of the people who report directly to you are new to GM. Is that a problem?

"Yeah . . . . [However,] almost all of them are new in their jobs, which I think provides an interesting perspective. We've changed a lot of people. . . . I do think there is a benefit to bringing in some fresh perspective."

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