Legs of RenCen executives must be covered with black and blue marks from kicking themselves daily for not unloading Opel when the German government offered to take the sick patient off GM’s hands. A deal, financed with $6 billion courtesy of German tax payers and a little petty cash from Russian bankers would have given GM a little money and an immediate end of the huge losses at Opel. Frankly, nobody in Germany had much hope for an Opel under Magna and the Russians either, it was seen as a hospice where to wheel the sick patient until it dies in silence, a la Saab.
At the last minute, GM changed its mind. Who made the ill-fated decision? Was Akerson for keeping Opel, or for getting rid of it?
In 2011, Reuters reported that it was most of GM’s board, with the notable exception of GM CEO Dan Akerson and another unnamed person. In Summer of 2011, Reuters wrote:
“Akerson was one of only two GM board directors who voted against keeping Opel in late 2009, believing Europe was a market of national champion automakers — VW in Germany, Fiat in Italy and Renault in France — and pan-European luxury brands like BMW and Daimler AG’s Mercedes, a person familiar with Akerson’s thinking said. Opel is neither and Akerson believed it would be a long, uphill battle to fix it.”
The matter is more complex than simple chauvinism, and Opel is seen as a national, albeit sick, champion in Germany, but the long uphill, or make that downhill battle remains.
A year later, when the New York Times looked into the matter, the story had changed. Instead of two people who had voted for unloading Opel, there were two for keeping it: Akerson and Steve Girsky. Writes the Times:
“G.M. nearly sold Opel three years ago before its reconstituted board decided to keep the business because of its integral role in the company’s global product programs. Two of the directors who championed the decision to retain Opel were Mr. Akerson and Stephen J. Girsky, the board’s vice chairman.
Now both are admitting that a turnaround in Europe has been far tougher than anticipated.”
The stories are diametrically opposed. In 2011, a whole board allegedly wanted to keep Opel, but Akerson and someone else were against. A year later, Akerson, along with Girksy, were said to have been champions of keeping Opel American.
The reporters of both stories are the best in the business. On the Reuters side, Ben Klayman has been an important part of Reuters’ Detroit-based auto team. On the New York Times side is Bill Vlasic, the NYT’s best auto industry reporter and author of Once Upon a Car, the account of the recent “fall and resurrection” of the Detroit car manufacturers. Both reporters stick to their story. The Vlasic story reflects the party line. However, the Klayman story is based on solid sources, and Klayman never received a call from GM, telling him the story was wrong, something GM usually is not shy to do.
Now there is one item that had changed: When the board voted to keep Opel, Akerson was a simple board member. He became CEO in late 2010, and it looks better is he’s firmly behind Opel.