GM Boss Resigns At White House's Request

By TOM KRISHER and KEN THOMAS
|  Monday, Mar 30, 2009  |  Updated 12:41 AM PDT
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Rick Wagoner will step down immediately as chairman and chief executive of the struggling Detroit automaker.

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General Motors Corp. Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner will step down immediately at the request of the White House, administration officials said Sunday.

The news comes as President Obama prepares to unveil additional restructuring efforts designed to save the domestic auto industry.

The officials asked not to be identified because details of the restructuring plan have not yet been made public. On Monday, Obama is to announce measures to restructure GM and Chrysler LLC in exchange for additional government loans. The companies have been living on $17.4 billion in government aid and have requested $21.6 billion more.

Wagoner's departure indicates that more management changes may be part of the deal, but it is still unclear who will be put in charge of GM. The automaker recently promoted Fritz Henderson, its former chief financial officer, to become president and chief operating officer. Many in the company thought he would eventually succeed Wagoner.

Detroit-based GM issued a statement Sunday saying only that the company expects a decision by the administration soon but that "it would not be appropriate for us to speculate on the content of any announcement."

A person familiar with Chrysler's management said the company has been given no indication that the government will require any changes at the Auburn Hills, Mich., company, which has been led by former Home Depot chief Robert Nardelli since August 2007. The person also spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama's plan has not been made public.

Wagoner, 56, has repeatedly said he felt it was better for the company if he led it through the crisis, but he has faced sharp criticism on Capitol Hill for what many lawmakers regard as years of missteps, mistakes and arrogance by the Big Three automakers.

Wagoner joined GM in 1977, serving in several capacities in the U.S., Brazil and Europe. He became president and chief executive in 2000 and has served as chairman and CEO since May 2003.

Obama said Sunday that GM and Chrysler and all those with a stake in their survival need to take more hard steps to help the struggling automakers restructure for the future. In an interview with CBS' "Face the Nation" broadcast Sunday, Obama said the companies must do more to receive additional financial aid from the government.

"They're not there yet," he said.

A person familiar with Obama's plans said last week they would go deeper than what the Bush administration demanded when it approved the initial loans last year.

Wagoner, in an interview with The Associated Press in December, had declined to speculate on suggestions from some members of Congress that GM's leadership team should step down as part of any rescue package.

"I'm doing what I do because it adds a lot of value to the company," Wagoner said in a Dec. 4 interview as GM sought federal aid from the Bush administration. "It's not clear to me that experience in this industry should be viewed as a negative but I'm going to do what's right for the company and I'll do it in consultation with the (GM) board (of directors)."

Wagoner has been credited by auto industry analysts with doing more to restructure the giant bureaucratic automaker than any other executive. But given that he has been at GM's helm for so long, many of his critics say he moved far too slowly to take on the United Auto Workers and shrink the company as its market share tumbled.

While GM has improved its cars in the last two years, critics say the company relied for too long on sales of pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles for its profits and was unprepared for a drastic market shift when gasoline prices hit $4 per gallon last year.

During the Congressional debate over whether to give GM and Chrysler loans last year, many lawmakers criticized Wagoner, including Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Banking Committee.

He accused automakers' top management of having a "head-in-the-sand" approach to problems and said Wagoner "has to move on" as part of a government-run restructuring that should be a condition of financial life support for the auto industry.

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Sunday that Wagoner's departure gives the government a rationale to provide additional aid to the automaker. He was not surprised by the move, but said he is disappointed because he considers Wagoner a capable leader.

"I think that as a condition for further government support, this helps give them a little cover with the public," Cole said. "Essentially he's taking one for the team."

Cole noted that other automakers have been shaking up management as well. He pointed to Toyota Motor Corp., whose president, Katsuaki Watanabe, recently said he would be stepping down as the Japanese automaker weathers financial difficulty. Also, France's biggest carmaker, PSA Peugeot-Citroen, abruptly ousted CEO Christian Streiff on Sunday, saying "exceptional difficulties" confronting the auto industry require new management at the top.

Cole said Nardelli's departure is less likely than Wagoner's because Nardelli is "relatively new" to the automaker, with less than two years at the helm.

Many GM executives likely will be disappointed at Wagoner's departure, Cole said.

"They had great affection for Rick — someone that's fair, that acts like a coach, that holds people's feet to the fire but has a good understanding of human behavior," Cole said.

GM and Chrysler were required by the Bush administration to get major concessions from debtholders and the United Auto Workers, with a deadline of March 31 for signed contracts. But very little headway was being made with either party this weekend as they awaited Obama's announcement.

Members of Obama's auto task force have said bankruptcy could still be an option for GM and Chrysler if their management, workers, creditors and shareholders failed to make sacrifices. Both companies are trying to reduce their debt by two-thirds and convince the United Auto Workers union to accept shares of stock in exchange for half of the payments into a union-run trust fund for retiree health care costs. The deals also call for executive pay cuts and labor costs that are competitive with Japanese automakers with U.S. operations.

Bondholders have been reluctant to accept the cuts, saying they're being required to sacrifice more than others, but they have been reviewing a recent offer by GM. The union has agreed to other terms of the loans, including work rule changes and reducing total hourly labor costs at U.S factories to a level comparable with Japanese automakers.

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