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General Motors CEO Ed Whitacre stepping down, to be replaced by Dan Akerson
"There are remarkable opportunities ahead for the new GM, and I am honored to lead the company through this next chapter," said Akerson, who was recruited to Carlyle by close friend and Carlyle co-founder William E. Conway Jr. because of Akerson's front-line operations experience.
"I knew he was a leader," said Conway, who called Akerson "one of the real stars of American business."
They met 28 years ago at MCI Communications, where Conway was the chief financial officer and Akerson, a 1970 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who served five years on a destroyer, ran one of the telecommunications company's big divisions.
"People follow him. He is good at hiring and firing. He knows how to build a business. Operations. Finance. He had really done it. I thought he would be a big plus for Carlyle," Conway said.
Akerson lives in McLean, where he just built a new home. He is likely to keep the home, but leaving Carlyle for the job of chief executive at General Motors will probably be a financial sacrifice. As a Carlyle managing director, Akerson makes millions a year. He is unlikely to match that compensation at GM, which will be under close scrutiny for years because of the taxpayer bailout.
While Conway bemoaned the loss, he said that no one -- including himself -- is irreplaceable and that Carlyle has a deep bench of candidates to succeed Akerson.
Whitacre's resignation stunned auto analysts.
"It was a big surprise, and it caught everybody off guard," said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of the auto Web site Edmunds.com. "But when you step back, it makes all kinds of sense." Anwyl said that part of an IPO is the "road show" -- when the company's top executives travel the country, seeking investors. "If you're doing a road show, investors are entitled to know who the managers are for the foreseeable future. Instead of dodging the question of succession planning, GM is answering it in the most tangible way."
Whitacre's short tenure raises a question: If his plan all along was to be a transitional leader, why did the board fire the previous transitional leader, Henderson?
"At the time, Fritz provided necessary leadership continuity as the company went through a period of great change," GM's Martin said. "But the board eventually decided that a new direction was needed to drive the company to a new level of urgency and decisiveness not previously seen."
Once the backbone of American manufacturing, GM -- like its nearby rival, Chrysler -- now stands at a turning point.
One year ago, both companies were emerging from government-backed bankruptcy on unsteady legs. Chrysler survived liquidation with a hasty marriage to Italy's Fiat, which now owns 20 percent of the company and has management control. The government took a more direct interest in GM, first sacking Wagoner, who is now a Washington Post Co. director, and taking a 61 percent ownership stake in the company. Ford was the only one of Detroit's Big Three to pass up a government handout.
Earlier this week, Chrysler said that it narrowed its second-quarter losses and that it plans to bring a small and popular Fiat model to the U.S. market later this year. GM, thanks to cost cutting and solid sales among its four remaining brands -- Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC -- swung to second-quarter profitability.
At GM, even though 14 of 15 top executive jobs have turned over during the bankruptcy, much of the lower management remains, raising questions about just how much the company has changed.
"There is still clearly work to be done in stability and credibility," said Edmunds.com's Anwyl.
Much will depend on the fate of the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, the first mass-produced new vehicle rolled out by the new GM. Starting at less than $17,000, the Cruze enters the crowded and competitive field of high-mileage compact family sedans, going up against Toyota, Honda and several other automakers.