Chris Liddell has made no secret of his ambitions to run a company. So in that respect, his departure from Microsoft last month as the company's first-ever outside Chief Financial Officer, a role he's played since 2005, wasn't much of a surprise. Sure, his boss Steve Ballmer has been there for a decade, but with no clear exit strategy for the guy sitting in the C-Suite, Liddell's greener grass was really over the next fence.
But his arrival at the CFO's job at General Motors is a bit of a surprise.
Many industry insiders suspected he would have taken the CEO's job at CA, and that his departure from Microsoft with no real explanation suggested that was a pretty sure bet. Was he passed over?
Were the various CEO jobs rumored in the industry suddenly unavailable to him?
Or, more likely, has Liddell somehow solidified the inside track — the pole position if you will — for the top job at GM? That seems far more likely. GM isn't tipping its hand, nor is Liddell, at least not yet. But his corresponding "vice chairman's" title might be a good giveaway. Without a wink and nod from GM CEO Ed Whitacre that Liddell is indeed the front-runner for the position, insiders who know Liddell tell me it's unlikely he would have taken the job. And it's likely more than merely a wink and a nod.
Just on a financial basis alone, the move seems quirky. Liddell's separation agreement from Microsoft calls for him to bank $1.9 million by next March, $950,000 for 2009, and another $950,000 for the first part of 2010. This is a guy who made well over $3 million at Microsoft in salary and bonus for 2009 as well. Salary caps and other restrictions would prevent him from making more than $500,000 in salary at GM. His predecessor, Ray Young, made $850,000 last year, and his counterpart at Ford (with whom Microsoft has a partnership in "Sync") made over $1 million.
So, what's the attraction of moving from one company with an almost endless sea of cash to draw from to an arid company, a shell of its former self, a company that is so last century? Liddell, 51, and an avid Rugby player and New Zealander, was very clear in his departure from Microsoft that he was looking for a challenge. In turning around GM, he gets one. In spades. Those who know Liddell tell me this morning that he's up to the task, he's roundly respected on Wall Street and he's done fine work at Microsoft.
In the CFO position at GM, he gets to learn the company from the inside out. That could be immeasurably valuable if he really does ascend the ranks, or rank, and takes the CEO job. His pay package will be interesting to see. His vision for a car company will be fascinating. The jokes have already begun: Cars that will get 1,500 miles per gallon, but explode at random was one that caught my eye. Another good point: Does GM dump OnStar for Microsoft's Sync?
GM is already on the road to paying back the $6.7 billion taxpayer loan that kept the company afloat. And it should all be paid back by next June. Liddell may be joining the company just in time. The difficult decisions are largely behind the company, and if he's part of a team that can turn around an American icon, he could be a hero for the industrial ages. And if he can't, well, expectations are so low anyway that there's very little risk in being part of the team that at least gave it a shot.
This could end up being a very good move for GM in general, and Liddell in particular.
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