Former General Motors CEO Ed Whitacre made his first visit to the company's Detroit headquarters since resigning more than two years ago and defended the automaker's decision to keep its European operations.
In an interview Monday, Whitacre praised GM's executive leadership team and backed the government's decision to provide $49.5 billion of emergency aid, but he still says the Treasury Department should've sold all its GM shares when the company went public in November 2010.
Whitacre is still on good terms with GM. He spoke to the Free Press before signing copies of his new book, "American Turnaround: Reinventing AT&T and GM and the Way We Do Business in the USA," for GM employees at the Renaissance Center
The 71-year-old Texan and former CEO of AT&T spent 10 months as CEO and chairman of GM after the company's 2009 bankruptcy. He orchestrated the board's firing of then-CEO Fritz Henderson and was replaced by current CEO Dan Akerson after he decided he couldn't commit the kind of time the company needed to be successful.
Whitacre helped plant the seeds for GM's return to sustainable financial footing and sales growth. When he resigned, his original choice for his replacement was GM North America President Mark Reuss, but the board settled on Akerson.
During Whitacre's tenure, the GM board decided not to sell its Germany-based Opel subsidiary. But GM's European business hasn't turned a profit in more than 13 years and lost $1.8 billion in 2012.
"I think it can be fixed," he said. "It's management. That takes a while. But I think the know-how to fix things in Europe is here."
Here are excerpts from the conversation with Whitacre:
QUESTION: We're steps away from the food court at GM headquarters. You made a point to come here on a regular basis to meet with employees. Why?
ANSWER: I wanted to get to know them, and I was hungry and wanted to get something to eat. And my office was upstairs, so it was handy.
Q: What did you think about the government's decision in December to sell all its shares within 12 to 15 months?
A: I did advocate the government get out as quickly as possible. They obviously didn't follow my wishes. I think they should continue on the path to get out as quickly as possible.
Q: Some people have said you set the bar too high for the Chevrolet Volt and that GM is still struggling to meet that bar. Were you too aggressive with the Volt?
A: No. The company has a responsibility to try new technology. With the emphasis on climate and environment, it was the right thing to do. I think it's the only vehicle where you don't have range anxiety. You can argue about the price, you can argue about it at a lot of different points. I've driven it. I think it's a great car. Is it ahead of its time? Maybe, maybe not, I don't know.
Q: You talked at length in the book about your decision to replace Fritz Henderson and it almost seemed that you regretted the way he had to leave. Have you talked with him since?
A: I've not talked with Fritz. I did regret it turned out the way it did. It was a board decision. We had (a) set period of time where changes had to occur. We didn't see those changes occurring, and so we took action to make things a little bit different. He's a fine guy, he's a smart guy. It just didn't work out.
Q: How has the iPhone has changed the telecommunications industry?
A: The telecommunications industry has changed from wired line to wireless. And we made the right moves to make that happen at AT&T. The iPhone has added a new dimension to that. It changed the world.
Q: You're still an AT&T guy. No Verizon?
A: No Verizon. There used to be a kiosk in this building, a Verizon kiosk. I never went there, although Verizon's a good company.
Q: Some people to this day believe that President Barack Obama was intimately involved in running this company during your tenure or even after you left. What can you tell people like that?
A: I can just tell them it's not true. They let the management and the board of directors have wide leeway here. They didn't bother us.
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