The Detroit News snagged a lengthy interview with GM CEO Dan Akerson, giving observers one of the first in-depth looks at the man who will be leading The General for the next three to four years. The interview is to lengthy to summarize here, but there are a few items that are worth noting…
For one thing, Akerson has some serious ambitions and doesn’t mind sharing them with the world.
There are a couple milestones in my tenure I want to accomplish. I want to earn $10 billion a year profit. I want get the U.S. pension fund to fully funded — and we’re making real progress there. I want to make Europe profitable on a sustainable basis.
None of these are going to be easy to accomplish. A $10b profit would require a doubling of GM’s performance last year, and the other goals (particularly in regards to the troubled European operations) will divert a huge amount of cash. Meanwhile, the old GM challenge of “culture change” continues to be one of Akerson’s top priorities as well, as he seeks to develop a competitive atmosphere and break down the tradition of “boss worship” which holds back the necessary give-and-take.
But possibly the biggest challenge Akerson faces has to do with GM’s product, and the DetN includes a separate write-up of Akerson’s thoughts on the matter. Speed of development is one of his major changes, and he acknowledges that his desire to pull forward development of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu faced internal dissent (which he overruled, raising questions about the alleged death of “boss worship” at GM).
On the issue of fuel economy, he argues that the Chevrolet Volt
is a novelty (today), but it won’t be in five years. It’s going to be an old, old technology and old news.
He also says ethanol will “die slowly” and hints that GM will eventually start selling dual-fuel commercial vehicles, capable of running on natural gas or gasoline. Akerson also says that
we’re not going to do these big, heavy trucks that are making 15 miles, 12 miles to a gallon.
Which, given rising CAFE standards and gas prices, comes as no real surprise. It does, however, create some challenges to his goal of $10b annual profits, as much of GM’s profit traditionally comes from the sale of large trucks, and fuel-economy-improvement-related cost increases for pickups are projected to be costly.
Akerson made a few surprising statements on the luxury front, including a perplexing assessment of Cadillac’s next two vehicles, the XTS and ATS, which he says
are not going to blow the doors off, but they will be very competitive.
Whatever that means. And despite his apparent lack of confidence in the next generation of Caddies, he still took a potshot at Ford, saying
They are trying like hell to resurrect Lincoln. Well, I might as well tell you, you might as well sprinkle holy water. It’s over
In general, Akerson comes across as quite candid, possibly overly so (though you won’t hear us complaining about it). But for all his ambitions, he offers relatively little in the way of specific strategies to accomplish them. For example, his desire to make GM more like Toyota is hardly a “strategy,” as every automaker has been studying and trying to replicate Toyota’s success for decades. Speeding up development is an indication of his approach, but it brings with it worries about future quality. Similarly his desire to compete with every Volkswagen model while simultaneously downsizing and restructuring Opel sounds like a tough balancing act. But then, when it comes to turning around a company as large and perennially troubled as GM, ambitious goals and tough strategies are the only way forward.