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GM's former boss blasts automaker's old ways

Wednesday, 21 Aug 2013 | 9:47 AM ET
Ed Whitacre, former CEO of General Motors
Jeff Kowalsky | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Ed Whitacre, former CEO of General Motors

Ed Whitacre never minced words.

That hasn't changed in retirement.

His latest comments about General Motors are a sobering reminder of just how screwed up the world's largest automaker was during its brief bankruptcy and the short period of time afterward when Whitacre ran the company.

The September issue of Car and Driver features an interview with Whitacre about his tenure as GM's chairman and CEO. In it, he makes it clear some of the automaker's executives never learned to change, even after the company landed in bankruptcy court.

Car and Driver asked: "One of your mantras at GM was, 'Management is 100 percent responsible.' In the end, did they ever get it?"

Whitacre: "A lot never did. They'd say, 'We didn't do anything wrong. It's the economy.' Boy I didn't have time to linger with that kind of attitude. They had no flexibility. They'd been in the GM environment too long."

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Stuck in Their Ways

From the day Whitacre took over as GM's chairman and later as CEO, he made it clear the automaker's long-term success would depend on the ability of executives and employees to adapt and change.

Things would be done differently and Whitacre wasn't afraid to shake things up.

(Read more: GM rolls out the 2014 Corvette—but is it still relevant?)

Car and Driver asked Whitacre, "You told management, 'This is the direction we're going, [and] that's not a request for a show of hands.' Did they think you were being heavy-handed?"

Whitacre: "Oh, I'm sure they did. One guy at our Monday meeting said he'd be absent the next week because he'd be in California. I said, 'If you go to California, just stay there, 'cause you won't have a job when you come back.' It was GM's culture that there was never a sense of urgency."

Can GM change?

Despite his candid, and sometime harsh, comments, Whitacre appears optimistic he laid the foundation for General Motors to become a nimble and thriving automaker.

Car and Driver: "Will GM eventually return to its management-heavy bureaucratic ways?"

Whitacre: "When I left, I felt positive they would not. I think they got the message, finally."

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The truth is, GM has changed. It still has work to do, and yes, there are still parts of GM that remain stuck in old habits. That said, a number of the automaker's top executives move quicker than their predecessors and they have a vision for where to take the automaker.

(Read more: New vehicle launches to drive GM in future: CFO)

If they ever start to waiver and let GM slide back to its pre-bankruptcy ways, maybe they'll call Whitacre for an honest, blunt assessment of what's wrong.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.

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  • Phil LeBeau is a CNBC auto and airline industry reporter based in the Chicago bureau and editor of the Behind the Wheel section on CNBC.com.

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