March 31, 2009 at 1:00 am

Frederick 'Fritz' Henderson, CEO

GM rising star faces biggest challenge yet

Frederick 'Fritz' Henderson (Jeffrey Sauger / Bloomberg News)

Throughout his brilliant career at General Motors Corp., Frederick "Fritz" Henderson has relished challenges. Now, as the new chief executive of the troubled automaker, he faces new and bigger challenges than ever before.

Perhaps the most daunting will be to prove that a corporate insider steeped in GM tradition can bring the new vision and direction the Obama administration wants.

A Detroit native and the son of a Buick sales manager, Henderson, 50, joined GM 25 years ago and rose swiftly through the ranks by taking tough assignments -- and delivering results.

A protege of former CEO Rick Wagoner, Henderson has just succeeded his boss, who was asked to step down by the White House.

"This is not meant as a condemnation of Mr. Wagoner, who has devoted his life to this company; rather, it's a recognition that it will take a new vision and new direction to create the GM of the future," President Barack Obama said Monday as he outlined his plan for the auto industry.

Administration officials initially referred to Henderson as the interim CEO, but GM says he is the new boss.

Henderson's promotion is not unexpected. He has been president and chief operating officer for the past year, essentially drafted GM's restructuring and viability plans, and has managed key overseas operations in Europe and Asia.

He impressed people inside the company and out with his laser-like focus and ability to fix problems. "He's probably more aggressive and decisive than Rick is in moving things along," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

But now Henderson, whose appointment was approved by GM's board of directors, faces a new kind of challenge. "He's a GM lifer and out of the financial mold, and that's two strikes against him," said Joe Phillippi, a former Wall Street analyst who now heads his own firm, AutoTrends Consulting Inc. in Short Hills, N.J. "The issue is that he's going to be looking at a new board. They may want somebody coming in from the outside."

Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC are run by industry outsiders. Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli was previously at Home Depot, while Ford CEO Alan Mulally came from Boeing Co.

Henderson has been given 60 days to negotiate deals with the United Auto Workers and bondholders to shed billions in company debt. He also will have to make deeper cuts than those outlined in a Feb. 17 restructuring plan and deal with an intense level of government oversight.

Henderson thrives under intense pressure. "I really like being part of doing something that many people do not think can be done," he told The Detroit News in 2006.

After his return that year from a series of overseas assignments, Henderson served as GM's point man in the landmark 2007 UAW labor talks. He also oversaw bondholder negotiations and led talks in the reorganization of bankrupt parts-maker Delphi Corp.

Like Wagoner, Henderson started his GM career as a senior analyst in the Treasurer's office in New York, a breeding ground for GM executives. He headed GM's operations in Brazil and was president of its Latin America/Africa/Middle East and Asia-Pacific units before moving to Europe.

In the late 1970s, Henderson was a walk-on relief pitcher at the University of Michigan. "I liked his work ethic," Coach Moby Benedict said Monday. "He just did his job and when he had the opportunity, he made the best of it."

rsnell@detnews.com">rsnell@detnews.com (313) 222-2028

GM execs, from left, Chief Financial Officer Ray Young, then-Chief ... (Jeffrey Sauger / Bloomberg News)