The book has closed on Daniel Akerson as General Motors CEO. But for an outsider who came to town sporting as much contempt for the home team as any executive I have ever seen, a new book can commence about the company he set up for success.
Let’s be honest. Akerson doesn’t have a lot of friends in Detroit. He has been prickly since he arrived in 2008, first as a board member supporting CEO Ed Whitacre Jr., the CEO chosen by The White House to manage General Motors through a government-assisted bankruptcy. And in a town where CEOs try to play down their personal political persuasions, Akerson wore his on his sleeve, declaring himself a Republican who did not support Barack Obama for president, though he was glad to take the president’s support to bail out General Motors even if the vast majority of his party was against it. Awkward?
Akerson, a former Navy man and telecommunications executive, exhibited all the usual blind spots. Terms like “b-pillar” “tumblehome” and "Monroney" had to be explained to the man leading the world’s biggest automaker. He had an obvious loathing of the media covering him and his company that he couldn’t and wouldn’t even pretend to mask.
It’s an old story. Most millionaires and captains of industry simply can’t stomach the fact that someone making, say, $65,000-$100,000 a year gets to write a story about him and what he does, and maybe passes judgment, that reaches millions of people…and shareholders.
As prickly as Akerson was and is, he will go down with people who watch GM closely as a good and transformative CEO despite his relatively brief four-year run.
Whittaker began to break the spine of GM’s toxic culture of meeting to death. Akerson carried it through. Seriously, at General Motors there were endless meetings, sometimes about how to improve the meeting process about the meetings to improve the meetings. There was an in-house industry of meetings to work out how the North American Strategy board was going to get approval from the board of directors to spend $100 million of the multibillion-dollar capital budget the board had already approved. It took outsiders with fresh eyes to brush such madness away and put people to work doing more productive things.
What Akerson happily found was that there were first-class executives like new CEO Mary Barra and new global product boss Mark Reuss who felt it was toxic too, but did not have the license to kill it before Whittaker and Akerson led the charge.
With all due respect to previous CEOs Fritz Henderson, Rick Wagoner and Jack Smith, these GM lifers were taught by predecessors who thought that this was the way to run a global company, and lacked the imagination to know it was idiotic. They were more focused on the process of a global company than the product.
Those guys can squawk all they want to about the fact that Akerson has been dealing with a much lighter overhead of legacy costs, a chastened United Auto Workers and lower and more optimized production capacity. But the product-design team Bob Lutz built (let’s give Wagoner some props for hiring him) and then was run by the Whitaker-Akerson succession hasn’t produced any Pontiac Azteks, Saturn Ions, Saab 9-7xs, Hummer H3s or Chevy SSRs. Gah!
What’s come from the new GM, which wouldn’t have been possible without Akerson’s approach and choice of executive talent are the new Corvette, Cadillac ATS and CTS, the astonishingly good new Chevy Impala (who’d have thought?), a fully competitive Chevy Sonic, and more.
Don’t for a second let the men who came before Whittaker and Akerson tell you they loosened the jar-lid that those guys uncapped. It didn’t happen that way.
Akerson seems like a pretty cold fish, and gave lousy interviews to the media when he gave them at all. But it doesn’t matter. To his credit, he was about the work. Getting it done. Getting the place right for the next guy.
Guy? One has to admire Akerson’s last act as CEO, and solidifying his position in history. He identified Mary Barra as the best person to run the company going forward. Not just because she is a woman and would symbolize radical change. Indeed, I have yet to talk to the GM manager who isn’t utterly geeked about the choice of Barra. Not only has she earned her chops through three decades at the company, and with real cred as an engineer, but she is one of the people who chafed under the toxic culture of endless process meetings at GM and knew exactly what Whittaker and Akerson were talking about from the first day Wagoner and Henderson were in the rear-view mirror. She is hailed as a detail-oriented person who doesn’t get bogged down in them. Carry out the plan, or carry your briefcase on out of the building.
A landmark, history making appointment, along with the reinstatement of the dividend, the government exit from GM, a packet of world-class vehicles including winning both the 2014 North American Car of the Year and North American Truck of the Year, solid profitability and a year in which General Motors stock out-paced the market as a whole. Not a bad way to hit the exit door. The history books should be kind to Akerson’s four years.
And you can now ask him what tumblehome is.
David Kiley, is a free-lance writer, and President of the International Motor Press.