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Fritz Henderson (SHANNON STAPLETON)
Fritz Henderson (SHANNON STAPLETON)

GM rocked by Fritz Henderson's exit Add to ...

General Motors Co. chief executive officer Fritz Henderson resigned abruptly, a move seen as a setback to the U.S. auto maker as it struggles to regain profitability and stability after a 40-day Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring.

Ed Whitacre, GM's chairman, will replace Mr. Henderson on an interim basis until a new CEO is found.

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"While momentum has been building over the past several months, all involved agreed that changes needed to be made," Mr. Whitacre told reporters during a hastily called news conference late Tuesday in Detroit.

Mr. Henderson was appointed earlier this year to replace Rick Wagoner, who was effectively ousted by the U.S. government, now the largest shareholder of GM.

Mr. Henderson's departure comes after he and Mr. Whitacre appeared to disagree about the timing of an initial public offering that could allow GM to fully pay off the more than $60-billion (U.S.) the company borrowed from Washington and the Canadian and Ontario governments.

The two men also disagreed earlier this fall on the disposition of GM's Adam Opel GmbH unit. The board rejected Mr. Henderson's recommendation that GM sell a majority stake in Opel to a partnership of Magna International Inc. and Sberbank of Russia. GM decided to hang on to the troubled unit and restructure Opel itself.

Mr. Henderson's resignation creates even more uncertainty at a company that has already endured a year of turmoil. "This has to be a serious blow to the credibility of GM," said industry analyst Bill Pochiluk, president of consulting firm AutomotiveCompass LLC.

Mr. Whitacre sought to play down any suggestion that the latest chief executive departure was another sign of trouble at the auto maker. "I remain more convinced than ever that our company is on the right path and that we will continue to be a leader in offering the worldwide buying public the highest quality, highest value cars and trucks," he said.

"We now need to accelerate our progress toward that goal, which will also mean a return to profitability and repaying the American and Canadian taxpayers as soon as possible."

While GM said last month it would begin paying back part of the government loans in December, paying them back fully depends on a successful IPO that will allow the governments to sell their combined 72-per-cent stake in the largest U.S. auto maker.

Analysts cautioned, however, that a successful IPO depends on the company turning a profit and financial results for the period between the end of the bankruptcy in early July and Sept. 30, showed that it lost $1.2-billion.

"They're looking to rebuild the company in a completely different form," Maryann Keller, president of consultant Maryann Keller & Associates, told Bloomberg Television. "They're looking to bring in someone who has a completely different perspective."

Mr. Henderson was a career GM executive who rose through the ranks of the company's international operations and had been chief financial officer under Mr. Wagoner.

He was appointed in late March, when the U.S. government gave GM 60 days to come up with an acceptable survival plan.

The government later expressed satisfaction with a plan that included GM radically reshaping its bloated brand structure by cutting the number of divisions in half.

Pontiac was eliminated, while Saturn, Saab and Hummer were put up for sale. But under Mr. Henderson's watch, deals to sell Saturn and Saab fell apart.

GM said Tuesday it will decide by the end of the year whether Saab will join Saturn on the scrap heap.

There are several interested parties, but the board will take until the end of the year to see whether a deal can be made.

With files from Bloomberg News

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