December 2, 2009 at 7:57 pm

GM's Lutz: Henderson resignation 'inopportune'

At the start of his keynote address, Lutz delivered a poignant epitaph for Henderson's career as CEO, and added his signature wit. (Steve Fecht / General Motors)

Los Angeles -- GM vice chairman Bob Lutz said Wednesday he is sorry to see General Motors' president and CEO Fritz Henderson's departure, and called the timing of his boss' resignation Tuesday -- on the eve of the Los Angeles Auto Show --"inopportune."

Lutz, a last-minute replacement for Henderson to deliver the show's keynote address this morning, said his focus is on the four product launches scheduled for the show.

"Fritz was and is an outstanding executive, and I'm very sorry to see him go," Lutz told The Detroit News. "You can argue there never is a good time for any of this, but in this case, the timing is particularly inopportune."

Lutz addressed a standing-room only crowd at the Los Angeles Convention Center less than 24 hours after Henderson was forced to resign.

At the start of his keynote address, Lutz delivered a poignant epitaph for Henderson's career as CEO, and added his signature wit.

"He guided General Motors through perhaps the most difficult period in its history," Lutz said during his keynote speech. "I think all of us were surprised and the whole General Motors team I think is genuinely saddened over what transpired."

"I know you all would like to know the true inside story of what transpired at General Motors yesterday," Lutz told a convention hall filled with reporters, bloggers and auto executives. "I'm not going to give it to you. I will definitely be Mr. Teflon when it comes to the Fritz question. I will exercise enormous skill in the non-answering of your questions.

"You will have to wait until I publish my next book -- presumably when I retire, possibly several years from now."

Talking to reporters after the speech, Lutz conceded Henderson's resignation eclipsed some of GM's momentum and positive news, including Tuesday's appointment of Michael Richards as the new Buick/GMC executive.

Lutz had no hint a resignation was coming Tuesday.

"While I wish the timing was different, I don't think it will set us back," he said. "You can dwell on what happened, but that's not the way I was trained as a Marine. It's a distraction, but we'll have a lot to talk about. The public buys cars, they don't buy management teams."

The resignation stunned GM executives who had been dispatched to Los Angeles to build buzz for four new products being unveiled at the auto show, for which the automaker is spending a considerable amount of money. Instead, those same executives worry the auto show boost will be squandered, money wasted and buzz muted by questions about Henderson's departure.

Lutz, who was to retire this year, chose to stay with the company, heading the marketing and communications department.

"The best thing to do is get back to the business and focus on products," Lutz said.

He is responsible for all creative elements involving vehicles and customer relationships, and told The Detroit News his job is to fix the "perception gap" that exists between consumers and the company's products. He was noncommittal about his future at GM.

"Whether I stay or go is always a board decision," Lutz said.

During his short tenure as marketing czar, Lutz has launched the "May the Best Car Win" campaign and offered a 60-day money back guarantee, which was extended until early next month. GM sales fell 2 percent in November, though sales of its core Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC brands rose. The automaker's sales have fallen 32 percent this year through November compared to 2008.

Lutz also confirmed the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle will initially be sold late next year in select areas, including California, the country's largest new car market. Additional initial markets will be announced in coming weeks.

He also talked about a new partnership with three California utilities and the Electric Power Research Institute to collect real-time data on the Volt's performance starting in early 2011.

GM, the lead partner, which has received more than $30 million in federal aid for the new partnership, will supply more than 100 Volts to the partnership. The vehicles will be monitored to determine the best way to accommodate expanding fleets of electric vehicles, Lutz said.

The partnership also will involve installing more than 500 charging stations for residential, business and public use.

"No doubt we will look back at this period as a time of great progress, a tipping point that enabled the age of electrically driven vehicles," Lutz said. "It will be every bit as momentous as the transition from horses to horsepower."

The Volt will let commuters travel up to 40 miles on electric power. The engine kicks in after its battery is drained by about 70 percent to sustain the battery's remaining charge to keep the car running for several hundred miles.