What kind of a leader is Daniel Akerson, the executive who will replace Ed Whitacre on Sept. 1 as General Motors’ new CEO?
I’ll skip over Akerson’s studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, his service on the destroyer U.S.S. DuPont, his work as a turnaround artist in telecommunications and his stint at the Carlyle Group, the global investment firm. If you really want to know what Akerson is like, consider his reaction to a gall bladder ailment a few years back.
According to a Washington Post profile published in 2000, Akerson grew so impatient with his treatment in a German hospital that he pulled the tubes out of his arm, left the hospital and flew back to the United States.
So we can all agree that this guy is in a hurry. Which is just as well. Akerson is 61, so he’ll have only a few years in GM’s cockpit before he has to find a successor. But first, Akerson must organize an investors’ road show this fall to pitch GM’s initial stock offering, which could generate as much as $16 billion in revenues. Industry observers speculate that GM is rushing ahead with its stock offering to mollify President Obama, who wouldn’t mind if GM sheds its “Government Motors” moniker before the fall elections.
But there are plenty of questions that potential investors will ask, starting with the most important of all: Does Akerson have what it takes to run General Motors?Who Is This Guy?
Primarily a telecommunications executive, Akerson was named to the GM board in July 2009, representing the U.S. Treasury. He will leave his current post as a managing director of the Carlyle Group to take the helm at GM. During his career in telecommunications, Akerson was CEO of XO Communications, Nextel Communications and General Instrument.
According to Carlyle Group’s Web site, Akerson led General Instrument’s effort to deploy the first digital video, satellite and cable systems in the U.S. and overseas. As chief financial officer of MCI, he helped reduce the heavy junk bond debt that the company had built up during the expansion of its cell phone network. And Akerson transformed Nextel from a regional provider of walkie-talkies into a major force in the mobile phone market prior to its acquisition by Sprint.
Akerson kept a relatively low public profile in his capacity with GM. However he has shown flashes of alpha-male CEO behavior. According to the Wall Street Journal, Akerson played a major role in the board’s last-minute decision in November 2009 to renege on its agreement to sell GM’s Opel subsidiary in Europe. In retrospect, that was a gutsy decision. Although GM’s about-face triggered an angry backlash from the German government, the company can make use of Opel’s strong product lineup in the U.S. as well as Europe.
Akerson also played a central role in the board’s decision to force the resignation of former CEO Fritz Henderson, reports the Journal and Bloomberg News. One might second-guess the ouster of Henderson, an energetic executive who successfully navigated GM through bankruptcy. But it’s clear that Akerson isn’t afraid to make quick decisions.Trouble In Europe
Assuming Akerson makes it through the IPO successfully, his biggest headache is likely to come from Germany. In the first six months of 2010, Opel lost $637 million before interest and taxes, and Europe was GM’s only unprofitable region. Europe’s economy is stagnant, Opel’s unions are angry about job losses, competitors like Renault are giving away their cars, and cranky German politicians won’t give Opel an Obama-style bailout.
The good news is that Akerson can depend on Nick Reilly, GM’s European chairman. The 60-year-old Brit is a no-drama leader who successfully turned around GM’s bankrupt Korean subsidiary, Daewoo. After being installed at Opel in January, Reilly unveiled a turnaround plan to eliminate 8,300 jobs, close an assembly plant in Belgium, and spend $11 billion to fund the turnaround and revive Opel’s product lineup. A tall order, to be sure, but Reilly can succeed if Akerson backs him up.U.S. Market Share
General Motors has been bleeding market share ever since it controlled half the U.S. market in the 1960s. For the first seven months of the year, GM accounted for 19.2 percent of U.S. sales, down from 19.6 percent a year earlier. GM apologists doubtless will point out that GM could expect to lose share after it dumped four brands. But this is where Akerson can put his renowned impatience to good use. The only way to improve market share is to redesign obsolescent models and keep them up to date.
Exhibit A might be the ancient Chevy Impala, the darling of daily rental fleets but woefully uncompetitive against the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. Fortunately, GM is revamping its product lineup with 19 new models through 2012. And yes, the Impala will get a nice upgrade in 2013.
Industry analyst Jesse Toprak of TrueCar.com says GM needs to completely redesign its models every four years or so -- a very ambitious goal. “The old GM would redesign the Suburban every seven years or so,” Toprak said. “You can’t do that anymore.”
GM has historically fallen back on costly rebates to move the metal, but this practice also needs to end. In July, GM’s U.S. sales incentives averaged $3,659 per vehicle -- second highest amongst the major automakers, according to TrueCar. Only Chrysler was higher, with incentives of $3,741 per vehicle. By contrast, the industry average was $2,831.
General Motors can’t realistically expect to reduce its incentives until it launches new models. But as it does refresh its lineup, the company should re-affirm its fealty to value pricing, meaning the sticker price is set close to the vehicle’s final negotiated price. As GM’s now-defunct Saturn brand once demonstrated, no-haggle pricing can be a powerful marketing tool.
Rebates train consumers to ignore quality, performance and style in favor of price, price and price. Big incentives “are great for consumers, but GM is leaving a lot of profit on the table,” says Joe Phillippi, principal of consulting firm AutoTrends Inc.
In fairness to GM, the company already has taken one big step away from the incentives merry-go-round. Over the past two years, it has sharply reduced its inventory of unsold cars and trucks – thus reducing the need for everything-must-go summer yard sales. As of Aug. 1, GM had a 57-day supply of vehicles, less than the 65-day supply considered to be the industry norm. Investors should be impressed by this discipline.The Elusive World Car
Wall Streeters rightly praise Ford for bringing the European-designed Fiesta and Focus to the United States. A true world car can save an automaker a pile of money on design, engineering and tooling. But GM’s experience on this front has been mixed.
In 2005, GM introduced the Saturn Aura -- a rebadged Opel Vectra -- to the U.S. market. Saturn followed up with another rebadged Opel -- the Astra -- in 2008. The cars were not successful in part because Saturn had become an invisible brand. Fortunately, GM has not given up on its global product strategy. The soon-to-be-launched Chevrolet Cruze shares the new Astra’s mechanicals, and the Buick Regal is built on the Opel Insignia’s platform.
Meanwhile, the Chevy Spark, a small city car derived from the Daewoo Matiz, goes on sale in the U.S. next year. It’s not yet clear whether Daewoo-designed vehicles like the current Chevy Aveo can compete with the best Asian makes, but GM should have no reservations about Opel. “Anything small and stylish will do well,” Toprak argues. “They should bring everything in.”
For example, GM does not currently have a minivan in its lineup. Perhaps the company should consider the Opel Zafira, a compact people mover that sells well in Europe. GM reportedly is considering a stretched version of the Zafira for sale in the States. The company should move ahead with it.
Buick Avant. GM
In the pared-down GM brand portfolio, Buick will be the key to profitability because its products are priced at a premium over similar Chevy models. While the brand has had some recent success with the Enclave SUV and the LaCrosse sedan, GM sells more Buicks in China than in the U.S. It hasn’t really begun to shed its image as a brand for retirees.
In 2008, however, GM ended its marketing relationship with golfer Tiger Woods -- a good first step, and not just because of Woods’ sex scandal. But Buick needs a gotta-have-it model, a unique vehicle not available from other GM brands. One possibility might be the Buick Avant, a concept for a small, premium car aimed at urbanites. While this may be too far out for Buick, which wants to hang on to traditional buyers even as it appeals to younger consumers, if GM truly wants to revitalize the brand, it will have to take chances. GM must act decisively to take advantage -- this will be a good test of Akerson’s nerves.
Rebecca Lindland, director of automotive research at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, MA, believes GM has a window of opportunity. “There are new buyers coming into the market whose entry was delayed by the economy,” Lindland said. “Some are younger consumers who don’t necessarily care about [Buick’s] baggage. They are up for grabs.”Will The Chevy Volt Succeed?
It’s too late for Akerson to do anything but ride out GM’s costly bet on the Chevy Volt, a technology showcase that has little chance of producing much in the way of profit in the first few years of its production run. Industry observers agree that GM will take a big loss on every Volt, but GM is willing to do this because it hopes to grow sales, achieve economies of scale, and eventually make money with the second generation of the electric car.
Despite his reputation as a hardnosed bean counter, Akerson appears willing to accept this long-term bet. In July, he pushed the company to raise Volt production by 50 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal. But if the gamble plays out according to plan, GM could achieve in the next decade what Toyota did in the past one: Establish a new market with a dominant and profitable product that redefines the image of the company for the better.
While all these issues could easily overwhelm a CEO with no prior automotive experience, Akerson’s impatience may be his saving trait. Lindland of Global Automotive says Akerson can’t afford a “ma?, ma?” approach to GM’s problems.“The biggest issue is time,” Lindland said. “How much time does he have to get all these issues addressed? Wall Street will expect significant results.”