GM's search for a CEO brings up some popular names, but... GM's search for a CEO brings up some popular names, but U.S. Treasury limitations on executive pay could hinder the company's ability to secure the right candidate. A selection of executives (clockwise from top left): Fritz Henderson, Ed Whitacre, Roger Penske, Bob Lutz, Carlos Ghosn, Alan Mulally, Susan Docherty, John Krafcik, Mark Reuss and Johan de Nysschen (Adam Morath photo illustration).

I’ve been writing about the automotive world since just after the discovery of cellophane, and during those years I suggested on several occasions that General Motors hire racing billionaire Roger Penske as its chief executive officer. I did that so many times that Roger sent me a terse note saying, “Please shut up. I have more than enough to do here at the Penske Corporation.” Well not really, but he probably wanted to. GM, as you doubtless know, did not listen to me and look at the mess they’re in.

We are now faced with yet another CEO search by what was once the world’s largest automaker. GM has fielded no fewer than three CEOs this year: Rick Waggoner, who departed as part of the bankruptcy, the recently excised Fritz Henderson, and the interim CEO, Edward Whitacre, Jr. Now it needs another one. Maybe.

Mr. Whitacre is the former CEO of AT&T and is perfectly capable of running General Motors though he has intimated that he doesn’t want to. He took the job of GM board chairman as a favor to you, the U.S. government, and the United Auto Workers -- the automaker’s three current owners. He is now chairman and chief executive officer instead of simply the chairman.

Whitacre is the point person in the search for a new CEO.

As fellow owners of GM, I invite you to join with me in helping Ed Whitacre by suggesting a CEO for our company. We’ll leave Roger Penske out of the mix on the theory that if he didn’t want the job in the 1980s, he sure as sour apples doesn’t want it now. But there are other viable candidates.

Despite having been hit on the head with a battery, an incident that has led him to fixate on electric cars, Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn would make a superb CEO for GM. He has faced and defeated potential disaster, and on more than one occasion, he has watched happily as his critics ate their words.

Two names that appeal to me personally are Charlie Hughes and Tom Stallkamp. Hughes,  as CEO, introduced Range Rover and Land Rover to the United States and was for a time president of Mazda. Stallkamp was president of Chrysler Corporation in the glory days when it rose from the dead. He was shunted aside by the know-it-all Germans who lived to regret it.

Alan Mulally of course comes to mind, but having experienced the joy that comes with turning Ford around without the heavy hand of government on his neck, I doubt that there’s enough money in this hemisphere to pry him away from Dearborn.

But there is another capable executive with the Ford apparatus who could conceivably be tempted and who almost certainly is equal to the task. That would be Jim O’Sullivan, who is currently running Mazda as its CEO and a man one industry observer described as “an ass-kicking executive of the old school.”

It is against the law to discuss CEOs without including the names of the two Wolfgangs, Reitzle and Bernhard, who worked at an assortment of car companies in positions of heavyweight responsibility. They are talented but perhaps too strong-willed to work under Whitacre who, remember, will remain chairman.

GM Executive Chokehold

New guidelines set by the U.S. Treasury:
Executive pay for GM's top 25 executives is limited to $500,000
Salaries above $500,000 must be paid in company stock, and that stock must be held for a long period of time
Cash bonuses are based on short-term performance
Large severance packages, known as "Golden Parachutes," are banned

You would go a long way down the headhunter road before you found an executive who has done a better job for his brand that Johan de Nysschen at Audi. Bringing in the man who called the vaunted Chevrolet Volt a “car for idiots” would be great fun to watch.

A seasoned executive not unfamiliar with both large companies and government involvement is John Krafcik, the former Toyota manufacturing maven who is now CEO of Hyundai, a brand that is keeping competitors’ marketing execs on the edge of their seats. Krafcik is young enough and bright enough to be brought aboard for the long haul.

Asked at the Los Angeles Auto Show whether he had been contacted about the job, Krafcik replied artfully, “I forgot and left my phone at home.”

Is there no one within GM -- other than Whitacre -- capable of becoming CEO? Yes, and his name is Bob Lutz. But on the 4th of December, CEO Whitacre removed Lutz from his marketing responsibilities and made him a senior consultant, allowing the silver-maned former fighter pilot to retain his title of vice chairman. That would commonly be known as getting put out to pasture, being kicked upstairs or, as the saying went in the advertising business, going to the pet cemetery.

For my part, I would like to believe that Ed Whitacre is more than aware of Bob Lutz’s massive talent, never mind that he’s 77 years old and can occasionally say things that drives the GM public relations operatives into the Pepto-Bismol bottle. To write about Bob Lutz’s change of job description under the title “Requiem for a Heavyweight” would, I think, be woefully premature.

In the December 4th GM executive shuffle, a name not well known outside the company surfaced, that of 46-year-old Mark Reuss, son of a former GM president. Reuss, appointed only two months ago to head GM’s engineering, becomes president of GM North America. He has worked, and according to those who know him, worked hard for General Motors since he was 19. As CEO, Reuss would have the advantage of knowing the system, its good parts and its toxic parts, and would have the seasoned Whitacre as a father confessor.

Reuss has the additional quality of being a genuine car guy, not someone who memorizes passages from Motor Trend immediately prior to a press conference. And in that, he would have another eminence grise, Lutz, urging him on.

Last, I invite your consideration of the talented Susan Docherty, 47, who replaces Lutz as marketing boss. She has a solid sales record and will be in charge of the four nameplates that now constitute GM’s brand portfolio.

As the trendy executives say at the conclusion of their intellectually weighty memos, “Your thoughts?”

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