After a week of headlines about executive departures and other worries, General Motors Chief Executive Dan Akerson held a company-wide conference on Thursday. He bemoaned leaks to the media, calling them "an act of treason" -- which we know because the call was leaked to a few media outlets, including The Detroit News. He told employees to act with integrity, but that "forgiveness is better than permission." He also said the company has "done a pretty damn good job," then went on to list all the areas where it was falling down: Europe, pension costs, a choking internal bureaucracy and even suggesting some engines weren't as good as they should be.
So we know irony isn't a strong suit. But long-time auto industry experts worry about Akerson's choices at GM, and this talk didn't ease them. The trouble is there's no way to know who's right until it's too late.
Akerson, a former Navy officer who made his career in telecommunications and private equity, had never run a business as large and complex as GM before his sudden replacement of Ed Whitacre two years ago. Since then, there's been several executive shifts at the top, and Akerson has said the company needed a major reorganization to prosper in the 21st century.
Akerson has proven adept at spotting problems, inside and outside GM (famously saying, correctly, that Lincoln should go away). GM's 2009 bankruptcy was so rapid that there wasn't time for a more through revamp of a company that still seems to battle itself as much as others. By the end of this year, Akerson has pledged to move closer to a more modern structure, with a computer system that won't lose track of employees as GM's apparently has.
But spotting business problems is easy; knowing how to fix them is the tough part. Many business executives have washed up on the auto industry because of its myriad ways to lose large sums of money quickly. Akerson was apparently the motivation for GM to move up the launch of the new Chevrolet Malibu Eco months early -- a decision that backfired when the car got lukewarm reviews. If there's a fix for the European unit short of shuttering it, Akerson and team haven't revealed it yet. It will take another year to know how well Akerson's chosen team can execute a new model; GM is still working through a backlog of vehicles whose designs were interrupted by bankruptcy.
It's hard to think of a CEO job in America that's tougher today than GM's, between the business pressures and the spotlight of politics (more on that later.) As long as GM's profitable, Akerson has room to put his imprimatur on the company. The big test will be the launch of the new Chevy Silverado next year, GM's most profitable model, and the one ship that can't run aground.
Other stories from around the auto industry:
Honda may bring 5-door Civic hatchback to America: That could warm things up a bit. (Drive On/USAToday)
Roger Penske's sons arrested on break-in charges: The owner of the Dragon Indy racing team and his brother got in an unfortunate situation. (From the Marbles)
Jaguar F-Type to debut in Paris: Including a version of the company's supercharged V-8. (WhatCar?)