July 24, 2009 at 11:52 am

Daniel Howes

Insiders at new GM same as they ever were

Outsiders? They don't need no stinkin' outsiders to run the post-bankruptcy General Motors Co. -- at least not on the management team detailed Thursday.

The government-appointed board of directors is something else altogether, long as it is on outsiders from Wall Street, the telecom business and academia and short on anything approaching automotive experience. Welcome to one of the more salient untenables in the federal government's bailout-cum-bankruptcy of new GM:

President Barack Obama's auto task force, big-money investors and industry wags convinced GM management still is just another name for The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight want fresh blood to change the way the new GM operates. But the feds' pay-and-bonus restrictions essentially make it impossible for CEO Fritz Henderson to woo outside talent for inside jobs.

How do you square that circle? You don't, at least not directly and certainly not now. You promote. How many of the hedge fund sharpies who command billions in investment capital and sit around tables demanding that GM get new, outside management would themselves willingly decamp their current digs for a new assignment paying a smaller base salary and a bonus limited by the Treasury Department?

Probably none of them, and they'd ridicule anyone who did. Which is why GM's 50- and 60-something new retirees are being replaced -- to a person -- by 40- and 50-something GM insiders ready (or not) to move up the corporate ladder. Like so many other companies in this recession-scarred economy, GM has the talent it has and it's not likely to get more soon.

To read the announcement of GM's new nine-person executive committee, the promotions and the retirements, as I did minutes after it was made public, is to hear the faint strains of Talking Heads singing "same as it ever was, same as it ever was" and to hear more wailing about the chronically clueless GM.

To read it also is to be reminded of how completely swamped the accomplishments of some are by the indiscriminate discrediting force of bankruptcy. Does it matter that the long, slow repair of GM's labor relations, the effective globalization of its manufacturing and improved assembly quality was led by Gary Cowger, 62, retiring at the end of the year?

It should, but I wouldn't bet on him getting much credit for it -- not now, anyway. Or that Maureen Kempston-Darkes, 60, managed GM's Latin American operations at a critical time and delivered results that otherwise would have made financials worse for GM back home.

Or that Michael Grimaldi, 57, successfully launched critical versions of GM's full-size pickups and SUVs when it really mattered, leveraging that success into the presidency of GM-Canada and then the crucial job as president of GM-Daewoo in South Korea -- a global cornerstone of the new GM.

To read these names is to be reminded, too, of the monumental challenges and slim margin for error facing those who remain. There's Henderson and CFO Ray Young. Bob Lutz, the eminence grise again wooed from retirement to work miracles with marketing and PR. Tom Stephens, the engineer's engineer who'll be considered a failure if GM launches any duds. And Mark LaNeve, the marketing guy who defied predictions of his demise and now must get more skeptical American butts into GM seats.

It's a cliché, but there truly are no more excuses for the new GM -- aside from the very real drag of meddlesome politicians determined to use the government's stake to bend the automaker's products to their will.

Beyond that, GM and its homers can't blame the United Auto Workers, or draconian bondholders, or "dumb" American consumers, or the "bean counters" who "force them" to compromise the development of segment-leading new cars and trucks.

When GM emerged from its blast through bankruptcy, Henderson declared that there are no third chances. He's right, and the final shot is under way.

dchowes@detnews.com">dchowes@detnews.com (313) 222-2106 Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Catch him Fridays with Paul W. Smith on 760-WJR

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