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US to Sell General Motors Stake over Time: CEO

He is the fourth chief executive at General Motors in less than 18 months, but Daniel F. Akerson set out Thursday to show there is now stability at the top of the nation’s biggest automaker — and that his ascension signals a clear break with the past.

Gm Building
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Gm Building

“I’m not here for the short term,” Mr. Akerson said at a news briefing at the company’s headquarters here.

In his first extended public comments since taking over on Sept. 1, Mr. Akerson said he was “the right guy at the right time” to rebuild G.M. in the aftermath of the government bailout.

“The days of the past are in the past,” he said. “I’m looking out the front windshield.”

Mr. Akerson even distanced himself somewhat from his immediate predecessor, Edward E. Whitacre Jr., who held the chief executive job for just nine months and will step down in January as board chairman.

Mr. Whitacre, for example, said in August that he wanted the Treasury Department to sell the government’s entire stake in G.M. in the company’s initial public stock offering, which is expected later this year.

Not going to happen, said Mr. Akerson. “I don’t think that’s going to be done in one fell swoop,” he said, suggesting it would take several years. “I think that’s unrealistic.”

How long it takes for the government to divest the rest of its holdings will, in part, be determined by G.M.’s success, Mr. Akerson said. The company has postedback-to-back profitable quarters this year, but he said longer term performance was critical to any stock sales by the government.

“We understand that two quarters a trend does not make,” he said. “We need to post numbers consistently.”

He also differed with Mr. Whitacre on whether some consumers were avoiding G.M. cars because of the stigma of government ownership. Federal taxpayers own 61 percent of the company, and Mr. Whitacre had said G.M. was hurt by its image as “Government Motors.”

Mr. Akerson, for his part, put a much rosier perspective on how Americans perceived the $50 billion government rescue. “I think there are a whole lot of people who want this company to succeed,” he said.

The 61-year-old former telecommunications executive is an unknown quantity in the auto industry.

He was among several new directors chosen for G.M.’s board by the Treasury in July 2009, and then was a surprise choice by the board last month to take over as chief executive. On Jan. 1, Mr. Akerson will replace Mr. Whitacre as board chairman.

It has been a meteoric rise for Mr. Akerson, who inherits a company that wants to restore its reputation as a world-class automaker.

As G.M. plans its stock offering, Mr. Akerson has been extolling the company’s strengths, both aspirational and real. G.M.’s products, he suggested on Thursday, “are second to none,” and its global manufacturing structure is the “envy of the industry.”

A former Navy officer and a hardy football fan, Mr. Akerson portrayed himself as a leader who could shift G.M.’s productivity into a higher gear.

Daniel Akerson, Managing Director of The Carlyle Group
Source: mason.wm.edu
Daniel Akerson, Managing Director of The Carlyle Group

“To play offense, whether it’s in sports or in the military, speed is of the essence,” he said. “We’ll shift from being a defensive player to an offensive player.”

He conceded he had much to learn about automotive design and manufacturing, but said he was eager to put his stamp on the company’s strategic direction.

“Any time you open your eyes and open your ears you learn something,” he said. “I did not get to where I am in life by being deaf, dumb and blind.”

That said, Mr. Akerson has a challenge ahead convincing skeptics that G.M. is on firm footing after the most tumultuous two years in its history.

The company came to Washington seeking emergency financial help in the fall of 2008, and was then shepherded through bankruptcy with the aid of government loans.

Its longtime chief executive, Rick Wagoner, was asked to resign by the Treasury in March 2009. Fritz Henderson, Mr. Wagoner’s successor and another tenured G.M. executive, was then forced out by the company’s board and replaced by Mr. Whitacre nine months later.

“Four C.E.O.’s in less than 18 months has to be confusing to rank and file employees at G.M.,” said Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale University School of Management.

Even Mr. Akerson’s appointment was overshadowed by the abrupt departure of Mr. Whitacre, who was unwilling to stay at G.M. for an extended period of time after the stock sale.

“It’s a big challenge for Akerson,” said Mr. Sonnenfeld. “Whitacre built credibility and looked like he would take this company across the finish line. But it didn’t work out that way.”

Mr. Akerson, whose previous job was with the Carlyle Group private equity firm, is also not as accustomed to the limelight as Mr. Whitacre, the retired chairman of AT&T.

At one point during Thursday’s media session, Mr. Akerson marveled at the number of reporters — 19 — that showed up for the early morning breakfast meeting. And unlike Mr. Whitacre, he said he had no interest in serving as the face of G.M. in its advertising. “I don’t think you’ll ever see me in a TV commercial,” he said.

Mr. Akerson declined to address delicate subjects, like the coming contract talks with the United Auto Workers, or where G.M. might need to make improvements in its product lineup.