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Monday, March 30, 2009

Obama Forces Wagoner Out at GM
Originally Posted to the Detroit News

In a dramatic development on the day before President Barack Obama was to unveil his plan for the auto industry, General Motors Corp. Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner stepped down after the administration asked him to resign.

Obama has said he wants to help the U.S. auto industry and is offering GM and Chrysler LLC fresh short-term aid, but he faces mounting public opposition to industry bailouts.

"From the government's perspective, they had to show a visible form of sacrifice," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor and the son of a former GM president. "At one level I'm surprised, and at another level, not at all."

GM confirmed the management change just after midnight and Wagoner released a statement."Fritz Henderson is an excellent choice to be the next CEO of GM," Wagoner said. "Having worked closely with Fritz for many years, I know that he is the ideal person to lead the company through the completion of our restructuring efforts."

Henderson, 50, a GM veteran who has led the automaker's European and Chinese operations, has been carrying out the company's restructuring on a day-to-day basis and knows the leaders of Obama's auto task force.

GM also said that Kent Kresa, chairman emeritus of Northrop Grumman Corp., had been named interim non-executive chairman of the board of directors. Kresa became a GM director in 2003.

Wagoner, 56, was a GM lifer who became the company's CEO in 2000 and chairman in 2003.

Industry experts credit Wagoner with pushing through reforms and a landmark labor contract at the 100-year-old automaker, but he may have moved too slowly.

"If you can criticize Rick, it's that he was incremental by nature," said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive officer for the automotive research site Edmunds.com. "Step by step they were moving forward but they ran out of time."

After losing $82 billion since 2004, GM is subsisting on federal loans as it struggles through one of the most perilous stretches in its history. It has received $13.4 billion from the government and sought up to $16.6 billion more.

The government said late Sunday it will provide GM with an unspecified amount of working capital over the next 60 days.

There will be no immediate management changes at Chrysler, which will receive aid for 30 days as it moves to conclude an alliance with Italy's Fiat SpA.

Obama is scheduled to publicly outline his strategy for the American auto industry today in Washington.

In his statement, Wagoner said he was asked to step down during a meeting Friday at the U.S. Treasury Department.

"I think the need for something symbolic was pretty strong, and this certainly qualifies," Anwyl said.

In its assessment of GM's restructuring plan submitted on Feb. 17, the task force concluded that the plan was not viable, that GM needed a change of leadership, including changing most of the directors on its board.

It also said GM's plans did not go far enough, and it still has too many nameplates. It also said that while the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle looks promising, it will probably be too expensive to be commercially successful initially.

Wagoner, who had agreed to work for $1 a year, is barred from getting a golden parachute or a big severance package under the terms of the government's Troubled Asset Recovery Program.

Earlier on Sunday, on one of the morning news shows, Obama said he believed the U.S. auto sector could be restructured to become a successful industry.

"But it's got to be one that's realistically designed to weather this storm and to emerge at the other end much more lean and mean and competitive than it currently is," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "And that's going to mean a set of sacrifices from all parties -- management, labor, shareholders, creditors, suppliers, dealers."

He acknowledged that Detroit's automakers had taken measures to address "longstanding problems in the auto industry and the current crisis, which has seen the market for new cars drop from 14 million to 9 million.

"Everybody's having problems, even Toyota and other very profitable companies," he said.

But GM is suffering more than the overall industry, and some analysts say the talk of government bailouts and even possible bankruptcy is hurting the automaker in the marketplace.

So far this year, GM's U.S. sales are down by more than half, compared with the market's overall 39 percent decline, and GM's market share has dropped to 18.2 percent from 22.7 percent a year ago.

During Wagoner's tenure, GM lost the title of being the world's largest automaker, a position it had held for 77 years.

Accustomed to being treated as one of the country's top business leaders, Wagoner was subjected to intense grilling late last year on Capitol Hill as he sought federal loans to keep GM afloat.

The automaker began to run low on cash even though it has dramatically reduced its North American operations through a series of restructuring plans. The latest calls for the elimination of 47,000 jobs, 14 plant closures and the selling, shrinking or winding down of the Saturn, Saab, Hummer and Pontiac brands.

But the restructurings failed to make GM efficient enough to withstand a severe downturn that knocked auto sales to their lowest levels in 27 years.

In spite of the company's troubles and the stock's recent plunge to a 75-year-low below $2, Wagoner retained the support of the board of directors.