December 4, 2009 at 1:02 am

Daniel Howes

Howes: Whitacre accent is on reality check

Ed Whitacre's charm offensive is under way -- to the extent that's possible for a tough Texas telecom retiree whose middle name, as the lore has it, may as well be "accountability."

The new CEO, General Motors Co.'s third since March, is walking the offices of GM's RenCen headquarters, roughly a day after he and his fellow directors dismissed Fritz Henderson. Ol' Ed is reassuring nervous employees battered by years of restructuring and job losses, telling them that more cutbacks are not around the corner.

In his inimitable drawl, he's invited employees to visit his office, to "build trust," to "build relationships," according to company insiders. He's also wasting no time putting his stamp on GM management: today Whitacre is expected to detail tweaks to the automaker's executive structure, each likely intended to convey simplification and accountability.

And, a few months back, he hopped into his own car, drove himself up Jefferson to Solidarity House, walked into the headquarters of the United Auto Workers and asked to see Ron Gettelfinger, the union president (who'd already received a ringing endorsement of Whitacre from a retired union brother at the Communications Workers of America).

Guess they do move faster in Texas than in Detroit.

By the sound of things, the GM boss also is poised to unofficially teach GM a new language, much like Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally did after arriving in Dearborn three years ago. Expect Whitacre-speak to be heavy on no-nonsense facts, with a premium on clarity, simplicity and accountability -- the antithesis of an inbred GM lingo that evolved in recent years from an '80s-era patois but never really died.

Out of favor, kind of the like the Old Norse spoken by the Vikings of yore and Icelanders today, is the acronym-rich GMese -- EC and ASB, GMT and NAO, SPO and LAAMO -- that few except longtime GM insiders understand or would care to learn. Twangy Texas accents presumably are a bonus.

"It's like talking a foreign language," says a company insider familiar with some of the board frustrations that culminated in Henderson's departure. An insular culture fallen on hard times clashes with a faster, more widely accepted business mindset and the insularity loses.

That's not all. Clear and defensible financial reporting, the language most easily understood by the hard-boiled private equity types among GM's directors, will be a non-negotiable requirement of the new GM. No obfuscation; no "Detroit" way; no accounting gimmicks to make results look better than they are.

This is culture change, turbo-charged. Higher standards, discipline and teamwork are expected to deliver 21st-century business behaviors. Corporate programs designed to drive the change, launched Oct. 1, apparently are secondary.

We've seen a version of this movie before in Detroit. It started running three years ago in Dearborn, when Mulally challenged longtime Ford assumptions and bad habits with a simple question -- why?

Why do we have different sets of operating numbers, he asked a finance staffer on the first of his now-fabled "Thursday meetings"? Why did you approve product programs that were never expected to earn a profit? Why do you have separate engineering operations in different regions of the world? And why so many brands when the world's most profitable competitors have comparatively few?

Or, as GM's directors demanded recently of company executives: Why are the automaker's vehicles -- touted by critics and independent surveys -- still doing so poorly with Consumer Reports, effectively the bible for discriminating car and truck buyers?

Bottom line: It's Whitacre as blunt instrument, a CEO-for-however-long who will seek clarity over complexity and accountability over everything else. Meaning a) more GM execs could be headed for a premature retirement while b) others get tougher assignments as c) Mr. Accountability puts himself in the position of being accountable and all that means.

In Texas, I'd guess they call that walkin' the talk. In Detroit, that's yet another brutal wake-up call delivered with bracing speed -- and a slow drawl.

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 WJR-AM (760).

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