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The leasing decision comes while GM’s market share in Canada sits near historic lows. (CARLOS BARRIA)
The leasing decision comes while GM’s market share in Canada sits near historic lows. (CARLOS BARRIA)

GM's new CEO 'aggressive, quiet' Add to ...

Ed Whitacre likes people who know their limits as well as he learned his own in Detroit.

By stepping down as General Motors Co.'s chief executive officer even as the auto maker readies a politically charged stock offering, Mr. Whitacre delivered the same message that made him CEO eight months ago - GM needs new leadership from outside the company.

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Dan Akerson, 61, who becomes GM's new CEO, combines Mr. Whitacre's outsider status and background in the tightly regulated telecommunications industry with a history of dealmaking as head of buyouts at private equity firm The Carlyle Group.

Mr. Whitacre remains chairman until the end of the year. He was expected to quit after guiding GM through an initial public offering to reduce the U.S. government's 61 per cent stake.

Just a week ago, Mr. Whitacre, 68, said he had not given any thought to resigning. "Everybody knows at my age I'm not a real longtimer," he told reporters.

The sudden nature of Mr. Whitacre's announced departure - coming just a day before GM was expected to file the registration needed for an IPO and after a meeting of the top U.S. auto maker's board - stunned insiders.



Dan Akerson



GM's financial advisers, who have spent weeks preparing the filing for U.S. securities regulators, scrambled to rewrite complicated paperwork to take Mr. Whitacre out and put Mr. Akerson in, one person with direct knowledge of the private process said.

Mr. Whitacre, a lanky Texan who confessed to feeling lost in Detroit and commuted home by plane to San Antonio on weekends, had become the face of GM's turnaround and starred in TV commercials meant to mark its return from bankruptcy protection.

Mr. Whitacre became CEO when he decided that former CEO Fritz Henderson needed to leave last November because he saw the career GM executive as taking on too much work, according to one person who participated in those board meetings.

At GM, Mr. Whitacre became famous for spurning the PowerPoint presentations that had become a symbol of the slow decision-making process at the 102-year-old auto maker.

After GM's top executives were blasted for being out of touch and riding to the top floor of a tower in Detroit's Renaissance Center on a private elevator, Mr. Whitacre took pains to mix with workers, showing up unannounced in offices and factories.

But his hands-off style of delegating also left him appearing sometimes out of touch. Last week he said GM was weeks away from an IPO filing, a statement that puzzled staff who were almost finished with the needed work.

Mr. Akerson, who will take over from Mr. Whitacre and lead GM's road show starting in September, becomes GM's fourth CEO in the past 18 months.

Mr. Akerson became head of global buyouts at Carlyle last July, and was designated by the Treasury Department to serve on the GM board in July 2009 after the auto maker emerged from its government-supported bankruptcy protection filing.

Analysts said Mr. Akerson gives GM a full-time CEO and heads off potential investor concern about executive succession before anyone can even ask about it.

Mr. Akerson, a former U.S. Navy officer who served on a destroyer from 1970 to 1975, supported fellow Navy veteran and Republican John McCain for president. He lives in Northern Virginia, close to Washington, D.C. He is married and has three children.

He began driving a Cadillac about a year ago, around the time the Obama administration asked him to join the GM board.

In a career with Carlyle that began in 2003, he was involved with some of the firm's biggest deals including buyouts of energy firm Kinder Morgan and media company Nielsen.

Earlier, Mr. Akerson was a protege of entrepreneur Craig McCaw, a major backer of both XO and Nextel Communications, both of which Mr. Akerson headed.

"Dan Akerson is a forceful agent of change who will help GM continue to transform itself into a viable, global competitor," Mr. McCaw said in a statement.

"He was never an in-your-face CEO," said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst. "This is an aggressive businessman, but he's very quiet."

At Nextel, Mr. Akerson was known for taking charge of complicated engineering meetings, for his quiet manner and for his ruthless focus on the bottom line.

When he took his chief spokesman out to lunch, Mr. Akerson would head to "his favourite Scottish restaurant, McDonald's," said Daisy Khalifa, who worked with Mr. Akerson at Nextel.

Mr. Akerson lacks one quality analysts credit with giving Ford CEO Alan Mulally a leg up as an outsider - experience in manufacturing.

Ford hired Mr. Mulally away from Boeing Co. in 2006 and as CEO he has been credited with leading a surprising turnaround for the No. 2 U.S. auto maker.

But GM former Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, a legendary "car guy" in Detroit, said that lack of experience won't stop Mr. Akerson.

"Like many strong leaders, he has equally strong opinions," Mr. Lutz said, adding that he would have to listen to the new layer of management Mr. Whitacre has put in place.

"If he can do that, GM will face a very bright future under his leadership," he said.

 

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