GM's U.S.-appointed chief resigns after eight months

General Motors, based in Detroit, has mostly held on to its market share in the past year despite its cutbacks.
General Motors, based in Detroit, has mostly held on to its market share in the past year despite its cutbacks. (Gary Malerba/Bloomberg News)
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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

General Motors chief executive Fritz Henderson resigned unexpectedly Tuesday from the government-owned company, once again unsettling the ranks at the nation's largest automaker as it struggles to right itself after bankruptcy.

The change comes just months after Henderson's predecessor, G. Richard Wagoner Jr., was forced to resign by the Obama administration. The administration and the company said the government had no immediate role in Henderson's departure.

Edward E. Whitacre Jr., the former chief executive at AT&T who was appointed by the government as GM board chairman earlier this year, will serve as interim chief executive as a search begins for a permanent replacement.

"While momentum has been building over the past several months, all involved agree that changes needed to be made," Whitacre said in a brief statement read to reporters at the company's Detroit headquarters. "We now need to accelerate our progress."

Whitacre described the decision for Henderson to resign as mutual but declined to answer questions. Henderson could not be reached for comment.

His departure appeared to come suddenly. Henderson had been slated to make a major speech at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday, and earlier Tuesday, the company was issuing media advisories regarding his address. But the company board had been meeting in Detroit on Monday and Tuesday. It was there that the resignation was accepted, according to company officials.

"This was not supposed to have happened," said Gerald C. Meyers, the former chairman of American Motors and now a professor at the University of Michigan. "I'm not going to say it's unfair because there's nothing unfair about business. But this does seem to have been short-tempered."

Henderson had been chief executive for only about eight months. Meyers said it would have taken far longer than that, maybe 18 months, to fairly assess whether he "could move the needle on sales and profits."

Exactly what precipitated Henderson's exit was not clear. Previously one of Wagoner's deputies, Henderson had been elevated to chief executive by the government's autos task force in March after it ousted Wagoner.

Whitacre said that "Fritz has done a remarkable job in leading the company through an unprecedented period of challenge and change." But he declined to discuss what led to the breach.

GM said the Obama administration did not play a role in the decision and was informed only after it was official. But the administration did appoint several of the board members. The government owns 61 percent of the automaker after it invested $50 billion in its rescue.

"This decision was made by the Board of Directors alone. The administration was not involved in the decision," the Obama administration said in a statement.

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