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General Motors Chairman Ed Whitacre: Savior Or Saboteur?

March 9, 2010
2010 Chevrolet Cobalt

2010 Chevrolet Cobalt

2010 Hummer H3

2010 Hummer H3

Every day, there's a new story about General Motors' wobbly return to profitability. Between the management shakeups, the gut-churning attempt to sell off HUMMER, Saturn and Saab, and even a spate of recalls on cars like the 2010 Chevrolet Cobalt, much of the press surrounding GM is negative and full of dire predictions. A couple of recent items have given us cause for hope -- namely, GM's efforts to boost workplace morale and the automaker's more modest expectations in Europe -- but in light of all the less-flattering news, we can tell if those are flukes, or if they're truly indicative of a new culture at GM. But more importantly, we're left wondering whether GM chairman and interim CEO Ed Whitacre is actively steering these changes, or if he's about to wreck the ship.

When Whitacre first signed on as chairman, there was a fair amount of grumbling on the interwebs. GM fans had grown sick of seeing their beloved automaker devolve into a bloated, ineffective bureaucracy, and they were hoping that the company's restructuring would result in some significant organizational changes. Instead, what many people saw was "another old white guy" at the company's helm.

But Whitacre hasn't been so easily pigeonholed. True, his hair is gray, and true, he appears to be Caucasian, but this is the guy behind one of the most tech-savvy, consumer-conscious moves in recent history: AT&T's exclusive hold on the Apple iPhone. That's not the sort of "old white guy" most people would put out to pasture.

Whitacre's short tenure has been marked by ups and downs, and today, news indicates that the roller coaster ride has gotten slightly bumpier. On the upside, Whitacre has worked hard to reinstate 661 dealerships that were cut from GM's network in the wake of the company's bankruptcy. Given the heat that GM has taken from dealers and legislators about inconsistencies in its dealer elimination criteria, this is a great PR move for the automaker-- though technically, Whitacre claims that the reason behind the reinstatements is really to boost sales. Either way, it's a win.

On the downside, Whitacre has failed to reinstate any of the three dealers who led the reinstatement campaign, and as far as we know, he's had no contact with them. That does little to appease three very vocal adversaries, and it makes Whitacre and GM appear vindictive. That doesn't do much to improve the automaker's image among consumers -- much less dealers, who are supposed to be the company's advocates in their communities.

Also on the upside/downside, Whitacre is apparently impatient to see some profits, and he's savaging the company ranks until he gets what he wants. Frankly, we have no problem with getting rid of dead weight -- and a lot of the weight that Whitacre is chunking overboard has been around a while, and might've been responsible for the company's long, slow crash. However, Whitacre may be going overboard with the personnel shakeups, and as a result, he could be damaging company morale. The GM employees who've managed to keep their jobs amid layoffs and cutbacks are already tense. The last thing those folks need is more uncertainty, which will ultimately lead to greater labor turnover and potentially quality issues in GM products.

And so we're left wondering: is Ed Whitacre crazy, or crazy like a fox?


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