General Motors has named Stephen J. Girsky its new Vice Chairman of Corporate Strategy and Business Development, a move that coincides with yet another round of changes in the automaker’s corporate suite — and it is triggering debate – once again – over the future of GM’s long-time product chief, Bob Lutz, who turned 78 this month.
Girsky, a former Wall Street analyst has been serving a variety of rolls at GM since joining the company on July 10, 2009, as it emerged from bankruptcy. He initially joined the automaker’s board of directors as the representative for the United Auto Workers Union, which took a major stake in GM as it emerged from Chapter 11.
But on December 1, following the ouster of former Chief Executive Officer Fritz Henderson, Girsky became a special adviser to Edward Whitacre, as he added CEO to his initial title of non-executive Chairman.
In recent months, Whitacre has acknowledged his heavy reliance on Girsky, a former Morgan Stanley analyst, to sort through some of the basics of the car business, which Whitacre, the former CEO of AT&T, admits he doesn’t fully understand.
“Steve brings a depth of experience to this position that will serve the company well as we continue with our restructuring efforts,” said Whitacre, following Girsky’s appointment to the Vice Chairman’s post. “He is a trusted adviser who has made a major contribution through the company’s transition. We look forward to benefiting from Steve’s counsel and insights as we move the company forward.”
A frequent critic of GM during his years on Wall Street, Girsky has generated good marks from those who have worked with him, over the years, including Joe Phillippi, former auto analyst with Lehman Brothers and now head of the consulting firm, AutoTrends.
“He’s obviously got a lot of background in the auto industry,” said Phillippi. “And Ed (Whitacre) feels he needs a good sounding board and an outside voice.”
Girsky’s appointment raises new questions about GM’s management team. There’s been a significant shake-up since the automaker emerged from bankruptcy, with a number of key players joining from outside the once-closed GM fraternity.
When the 47-year-old executive assumes his new post, on March 1, he will oversee corporate strategy, business alliances, new business development, “and other related areas,” according to a GM press release. Some of those duties will be relinquished by John F. Smith, yet another long-time corporate employee, who will be retiring. The 59-year-old Smith plans to stay on, through the end of the year, as a special adviser to another GM Vice Chairman, Chris Liddell. The new chief financial officer, Liddell was himself recruited from Microsoft late last year.
The question many industry observers are now asking is what will happen with GM’s third vice chairman, Bob Lutz. The automaker’s senior statesmen had been serving as head of product development until late last year but, following GM’s emergence from bankruptcy, he switched duties, becoming head of marketing. That assignment was pulled by Whitacre shortly after he became CEO, with Lutz relegated to a less well-defined role.
In several recent asides, Whitacre has suggested that he does not spend a significant amount of time directly working with Lutz, though he has praised the 78-year-old veteran’s store of knowledge and his role as advisor to other GM executives.
There has been talk, in recent months, that Lutz would soon retire – again. He stepped down as president of Chrysler shortly after that maker’s ill-fated 1998 merger with Germany’s Daimler. And he retired again, several years later, after a brief stint running battery maker Exide. After nearly a decade with GM, Lutz recently said he is willing to serve, “as long as the board wants me and as long as my health allows.” He is in picture-perfect health, in fact, and frequently reminds listeners that his father, a Swiss banker, worked until just months before his death at 94.
Several well-placed industry insiders suggest that Lutz is growing increasingly frustrated by GM’s changing guard – and what many see as the effort by the new management team to take credit for the automaker’s nascent turnaround. Lutz has repeatedly emphasized to those insiders that the turnaround is based on an array of new products, such as the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox, which has been generating great reviews for design, features and quality.
“It will be interesting to see how this shakes out because (Girsky) is not a car guy,” said analyst Stephanie Brinley, of AutoPacific, Inc. “It’s great to get someone who can bring an oustide look, but if they don’t understand what makes a great car and what makes people passionate about cars, you could head down the wrong path.”
In his previous advisory role, Girsky was paid $900,000 annually, expenses. His new salary hs not yet been disclosed, but last week, the automaker revealed that Whitacre will take home a combined pay and stock package worth $9 million.