Ed Whitacre Also Thinks He Saved GM

Everyone involved with the General Motors turnaround seems to think it's important to note that they were the ones who actually saved GM, even though the company is still far from being a model of business success. Today's turn comes from former AT&T CEO and very very interim GM CEO Ed Whitacre in excerpts from his new book "American Turnaround" on Fortune this morning. There's a lot to swallow from what sounds like an auto-hagioraphy.

His first observation is that GM didn't know what it was doing and that post-Wagoneer CEO Fritz Henderson was a nice guy completely unaware of how little the rebuilt GM Board of Directors wanted to listen to him talk car nonsense for hours.

Fritz did not exactly take my advice. Instead of keeping things to the point, his presentation turned into a long string of facts and figures that offered little insight into GM's financial health or global strategy. At the one-hour mark, Fritz was still talking. I was incredulous. Instead of making it look like he had a handle on things, his presentation did just the opposite. After an hour and a half, we'd heard enough. I cut Fritz off and told him to sit down.


Henderson got 90 days of probation and didn't change his ways, according to Whitacre, so he was fired on the spot and replaced by… Ed Whitacre. This explains why Fritz Henderson's daughter took to Facebook to say "Whitacre is a selfish piece of shit, who cares about himself and not the fucking company" shortly after Henderson's forced resignation.

As Whitacre tells it, no one would take the job so he did the Texan thing of inheriting the company. Since Whitacre famously didn't use a computer the Facebook thing probably didn't bother him.

The concept of a well-intentioned but out-of-touch Fritz Henderson isn't hard to imagine, although I take issue with his initial view of Bob Lutz. This is, partially, because we have a deep and weird love for Bob Lutz.

Next up was Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman. He'd retired several times over the years, but he'd been brought back by former CEO Rick Wagoner as vice chairman to oversee the "creative elements" of products and customer relationships. What that meant, I had no idea. I got the sense that Bob's main job was to weigh in with advice and opinions about anything he wanted, anytime he felt like it.

This arrangement, I soon discovered, extended to GM board meetings. This was a highly unusual arrangement, so I asked Fritz why he allowed it. He said Bob often had helpful comments to make. Plus, Fritz said, Bob might not take it so well if he was uninvited. I knew some changes were probably in order. As for Bob's habit of sitting in on GM board meetings, that was about to stop.


Oh no he didn't!

Is Bob Lutz insane? Yes. Can we imagine him just showing up randomly to meetings and telling people what he thinks? Absolutely.


But Whitacre's points are basically that GM has no sense of business management and it had shitty products. No one, not even those of us in the camp who think of Bob Lutz as a deity, see him as someone who is going to take on the mundane but important business leadership tasks. On product, even with his big misses, it's hard to argue that Lutz didn't have a major positive impact, which is why Whitacre kept him around.


Maybe the rest of the book gets into this, but the idea of Ed Whitacre writing more than a chapter on GM seems a little self-serving. He was CEO for less than a year and you never hear anyone talk about the good ideas Whitacre had and their lasting impact.


The work of GM is far from finished, so this is more like a "Mission Accomplished" moment for Whitacre, who seems keen on using his brief tenure at GM to sell books, just like he sold your personal information to the NSA so they could spy on you.

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