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GM Removes CEO Henderson; Whitacre Will Be Interim Chief

General Motors abruptly fired CEO Fritz Henderson Tuesday, saying it wanted to chart a new course as it pushes ahead with its restructuring.

Fritz Henderson
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Fritz Henderson

Chairman Ed Whitacre will become interim chief executive as the largest US auto maker begins the search for Henderson's replacement.

The ouster of Henderson, a career GM executive who became CEO just eight months ago, came after a meeting of GM's 13-member board in Detroit.

"The board decided—and Fritz agreed—that given where we are, it was time to make some changes,'' GM spokesman Chris Preuss said at a hastily arranged news conference.

Whitacre also indicated at the press conference that the board forced the move.

“Fritz has done a remarkable job leading the company through an unprecedented period of challenge and change—and momentum has been building at our company over the past several months," Whitacre said. "But we all agreed that some changes needed to be made going forward.”

Henderson assumed the top job at GM in April after his predecessor, Rick Wagoner, was forced out by the Obama administration as part of the U.S. government-funded restructuring of GM.

After becoming CEO, Henderson, 51, spent the first few months working with the government to reorganize the auto maker outside of bankruptcy, but eventually took the company into Chapter 11 protection in June.

With the government's help, the company emerged from court protection in just 40 days cleansed of massive debt and burdensome contracts that would have sunk it without federal loans.

Henderson continued to downsize the automaker after its emergence from bankruptcy. He sought to scale down GM to just four core brands: Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC.

While he has largely succeeded in that goal, attempts to sell the company's other brands have hit obstacles. The company is winding down Pontiac and was successful in winning a tentative sale of Hummer to a Chinese construction machinery maker.

However, Henderson's bid to sell Saturn to racecar mogul Roger Penske fell through and the brand is now liquidating. Last week, Swedish sports car maker Koenigsegg Automotive AB dropped out of a deal to buy Saab.

Earlier Tuesday, GM said it would consider offers for its Saab brand until the end of the month and move to close the Swedish unit then if it appears that it cannot be sold.

The announcement from GM came after a meeting of the automaker's 13-member board of directors in Detroit and an appeal by Sweden to consider steps to save Saab.

"The board will evaluate potential bids between now and the end of December," GM said in brief statement. "At that time, we will determine whether a suitable arrangement for Saab exists. If not, we will begin an orderly wind down of the global Saab business at that time."

Ed Whitacre
Ed Whitacre

Most analysts see a Saab closure as the most likely outcome for the 60-year-old auto brand after an earlier deal to sell the unit to Swedish luxury car builder Koenigsegg collapsed.

GM said it had received other "expressions of interest" in Saab since then, although it declined to name those potential bidders, citing confidentiality agreements.

Also Tuesday, GM reported adjusted sales for November up 6.3 percent over the same time in 2008. GM said it planned to build 650,000 cars and trucks in the first quarter of 2010 in North America, up 75 percent from the same period in 2009 when the automaker was in a financial crisis and slipping toward a reorganization in bankruptcy.

The automaker, which emerged from a government-funded bankruptcy in July, said the U.S. auto industry's annualized sales for the month of November were expected to be about 11.1 million vehicles including medium and heavy duty trucks.

GM is in the process of dropping its Pontiac and Saturn brands and selling Hummer in its restructuring. The automaker's board was meeting Tuesday to discuss the future of Saab after a deal to sell the Swedish brand to luxury car maker Koenigsegg collapsed last week.

—AP and Reuters contributed to this report.

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