Though he insists he likes cars, Ed Whitacre, Jr. is not your classic “car guy,” which to some is a good thing. Trained as a telecommunications engineer, the 68-year-old Texan rose to the top at SBC, one of the smaller “Baby Bells” spun off after the break-up of AT&T, eventually staging the highly unlikely takeover of SBC’s one-time parent.
Equally unlikely was the call Whitaker got from the White House task force. A one-time top fundraiser for former President George W. Bush, Whitaker was named head of the newly-reconstituted Board of Directors following General Motors’ July 10 re-emergence from bankruptcy.
Whitaker has little patience for those who don’t deliver, according to those who know him, something he demonstrated, a week ago, when he led the ouster of GM’s popular CEO Fritz Henderson. For the time being, at least, Whitaker is serving as Acting CEO while a search begins for Henderson’s replacement.
In his first interaction with the media since the GM shake-up, Whitaker today held a brief, 38-minute webchat with journalists, a digital conversation that underscored his way of keeping things short and simple – if not always providing the necessary details or allowing follow up queries for clarification. Here’s a transcript of the conversation:
Q: Can you tell us what role Bob Lutz has within the company in the short-term? Will he be retiring soon?
Whitacre: Bob is Vice Chairman…his role has changed a bit…he is senior advisor to me and top mgt. We look forward to learning a lot from him…you’ll have to ask him when he’s going to retire.
Q: Where do things stand with the search for a new chief financial officer and have you narrowed the list of candidates to a few finalists?
Whitacre: It’s a good question…we’re close and have narrowed it down and have a real good candidate. Could have some news in two or three weeks.
Q: Fritz Henderson had only about eight months as CEO before he left. How long do the newly appointed execs have to show results before they are replaced?
Whitacre: Not long.
Q: How frequently do you communicate with members of the government auto task force? How involved are they in the decision making process?
Whitacre: I would say on the average about once a week. They promise to keep hands off and let the Board run the company. They’ve been true to their word and done exactly that…I give them high marks.
Q: What happens to GM’s pay restrictions once it repays the loans to the federal government? Do the restrictions continue as long as the government is a stakeholder?
Whitacre: To be honest, we don’t know yet.
Q: How are the Saab negotiations going?
Whitacre: We’re in negotiations with a couple of interested parties. We’ve got a deadline for the end of the month and we’ll let you know how it went.
Q: Do you have specific sales and/or market share forecasts for the first half of 2010? Are you satisfied with GM’s current share considering the 2009 market conditions?
Whitacre: The answers to your questions are yes, yes and no.
Q: Can you share specifics on sales and market share forecasts for the first half of 2010?
Whitacre: Sure. As much as we can get.
Q: Mark Reuss and Susan Docherty today said (during a separate teleconference that) this is their priority list: 1.) Paying back government loans. 2.) Get profitable ASAP 3.) Do an IPO next year. You also say you want accountability. Is this your priority list and how will accountability manifest itself?
A: These are certainly some of my priorities. Mark and Susan are terrific.
Q: What’s your timeline for a GM IPO?
A: The timing of the IPO is simply when we’re ready. There are many factors that need to be in place, as we’ve stated before.
Q: Since becoming Chairman how often have you visited GM dealerships around the country?
Whitacre: I’ve been to several dealerships in Texas and few others. I’ve spoken with many dealers from the largest to the smallest and I’m getting a good education.
Q: How many dealers can you take back and retain viability?
Whitacre: Can’t give you an exact number. We want to do the right thing…but we’re going to be viable.
Q: Do you see any parallels between the situations faced by ATT and General Motors? What happened at ATT that might by applicable to the challenges GM is facing now?
Whitacre: Great question…way too long for a webchat. I’d be glad to talk to you in more detail about that in person.
Q: Are you open to bringing in a COO or president as sort of a right-hand operator to help share the load in day to day operations as you revise GM’s strategy?
Q: On a personal note, do you like cars?
Whitacre: Oh, Yes.
Q: What is your personal, everyday vehicle?
Whitacre: I drive a CTS-V.
Q: What cars did you drive before you joined the GM board? When was the last time you purchased a GM car on your own?
Whitacre: I purchased a 2008 Tahoe before joining the Board. I have a 2005 Chevy Avalanche and a 2005 GMC Yukon XL. Just got my new CTS-V. Too many vehicles for one guy, huh?
Q: How important is public sentiment to GM management?
Whitacre: It’s very important…maybe number one.
Q: Are you expecting to announce any job cuts either for blue or white collar workers anytime soon?
Whitacre: No plans for new cuts.
Q: Why not pay back your loans all at once since you have enough cash to do so, instead of making quarterly payments?
Whitacre: You have a good idea. We’ve thought of it too… we’ll be looking at that possibility.
Q: Like many of my colleagues, I wonder when you will address us in the media directly, even if by telephone conference. To be honest, a webchat is quite a bit different and doesn’t carry the veracity of seeing or at least hearing you directly.
A: I’ve been on the job for four days. I’ll do it as soon as I feel comfortable and have enough clear air and time. I promise we’ll talk soon.