The Truth About Cars » Dan Akerson The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Mon, 14 Apr 2014 16:57:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Dan Akerson Akerson Named Vice Chairman Of Carlyle Group Board Of Directors Mon, 17 Mar 2014 12:08:38 +0000 Dan Akerson - Picture courtesy

Former General Motors CEO Dan Akerson has been named Vice Chairman to the private-equity firm Carlyle Group’s board of directors, where he will act as special adviser to the firm’s investment teams, managment and the board itself.

Bloomberg reports Akerson returned to Carlyle March 1, having headed the firm’s global buyouts and co-headed the U.S. buyouts divisions prior to steering General Motors out of bankruptcy beginning in 2009. His history with the company goes back to the 1980s when Akerson was both COO and president of MCI; one of the firm’s co-founders, William Conway, was CFO at the telecommunications company.

Carlyle board chairman and co-founder Daniel D’Aniello believes Akerson’s return will prove beneficial overall to the firm:

His remarkable depth of leadership experience will be a great asset to the board and our investment teams.

Carlyle oversees $189 billion in assets, conducting leveraged buyouts in telecommunications, transportation, and health care industries among others. The firm also oversees real estate, credit and hedge funds.

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Does Dan Akerson Know GM’s 200 Mile Range Battery is Vaporware? Mon, 23 Dec 2013 14:00:32 +0000 Envia-400whk-battery_1

The hagiographic article by Bloomberg/Business Week on outgoing General Motors CEO Dan Akerson did exactly what Selim Bingol and the other PR honchos in the RenCen towers wanted it to do. With other news agencies and blogs amplifying the puffery and pulling quotes, the article got GM and Akerson a lot of good press. One of the quotes that got pulled the most was Akerson’s reference to a “moon shot” project giving GM’s next generation extended range electric vehicle a 200 mile range on battery power, based on breakthroughs in battery technology. It may be more of a moon shot than Akerson let on, since GM has cancelled its contract with that battery’s likely supplier, accusing it of “material misrepresentation”.

In the Business Week article, it says:

Although GM has hinted that it’s working on a next generation of electric vehicle, Akerson says it’s aiming for a compact car that can go 200 miles on a charge and carry a generator, too. While it will be similar to the Volt, engineers are working on generators that could run on gas, diesel, or natural gas. The increased electric range is coming, in part, from advances in battery chemistry. GM is planning to bring the model out in 2016, for about $30,000, according to a person familiar with the idea who asked not to be named because the plans aren’t public. It’s a project that the company doesn’t want to say much about but signifies how it’s been trying to move past inventing things to putting inventions into showrooms. “We want it to be a moon shot so we can surprise the competition,” Akerson says.

That part about the company not wanting to say much about the project and citing an unnamed source is rather cute in the context of a high profile article that was based on weeks of exclusive insider access given to the Business Week writers. What’s also kind of curious is that GM’s “200 mile battery” was not really news, so citing an unnamed source seemed superfluous. In September, at an event at GM’s Tech Center battery lab, GM’s vice president of global product programs, Doug Parks told the Wall Street Journal that the company was developing a next generation electric vehicle that has a 200 mile range and would cost about $30,000, though the cost of the batteries today would make meeting that price point impossible. Last March, Akerson himself told an energy conference about the project. “There will be breakthroughs in battery technology, they’re on the horizon,” Akerson told a session at the IHS CERAWeek energy conference which was broadcast on “We’re actually developing a car today which is really anathema to the way the auto industry works: We’re running a dual play on the technology to see which one will succeed. One will result in” a 100-mile range, “the other will be a 200-mile range.”

Just like his comments in the recent Business Week article, Akerson’s remarks last spring about a 200 mile battery sparked a flurry of news reports about a potential GM EV with such a range. Many of those reports speculated that the battery in question was a lithium ion cell being developed by Envia, a battery startup claiming to use a special cathode and unique silicon carbon nanocomposite anode to produce a battery with a remarkable energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram. The level of energy density would indeed make a 200 mile range EV possible. The speculation was founded on the fact that in 2011 General Motors had invested $17 million through its GM Ventures arm to take an equity stake in Envia, resulting in GM Ventures president and GM chief technology officer Jon Lauckner having a seat on the Envia board. In late 2012 the automaker and Envia signed a contract for the battery company to start supplying GM in 2016. Because of the long lead time and validation needed in the auto industry, the contract had very tight deadlines, needing a final design for the battery by 2014.

However, the fact is that by the time Akerson, Parks and Bloomberg’s unnamed source went public with the 200 mile battery project, GM already had doubts about the Envia battery and was in the process of canceling the contract. In an extensive investigative article on the Quartz website, Steve LeVine outlines the history of Envia, how it touted the breakthrough performance of its battery design, based on research at the U.S. Dept of Energy’s Arpa-E program, though it had never manufactured any batteries. GM embraced the company, signing a multi-million dollar contract as well as investing in the company only to find their potential supplier unable to meet deadlines specified in the contract. It turns out that their battery’s outstanding performance only lasted for the first few charge/discharge cycles and then fell off, continuing to decline.

Levine shows that by March of 2013, right around the time that Akerson started touting the 200 mile battery, at their first quarterly meeting specified in the supply contract, GM expressed concern that their own testing showed the Envia battery not meeting claimed performance specs. Envia asked for patience saying that the tight deadlines in the contract weren’t giving them enough time to properly develop the battery. By July, GM’s representative was accusing Envia’s founder, Sujeet Kumar, of making “material misrepresentations during contract negotiations”. GM could not reproduce the Arpa-E results and the automaker was not happy that Envia had claimed a proprietary anode composition when in fact “the anode material is not Envia’s.” GM gave Envia “a failed grade for this quarter.”

In early August, Envia received the following in a letter from General Motors:

Envia has failed to move the project forward or replicate the results on a timetable that could conceivably support the vehicle development process. In fact, Envia was unable even to replicate prior reported test results even when utilizing the third-party anode that had purportedly been utilized in the Arpa-E test battery.

The letter continued that GM was “well within its rights to terminate the December 2012 agreement.” By late August, the contract was cancelled. Envia is currently mired in litigation with former CEO Atul Kapadia, who negotiated the contract with GM, over his firing and with Kapur’s previous employer over intellectual property issues related to battery technology.

While all of this was going on, GM was still talking about a 200 mile battery. To be fair, Akerson did say they were working on two tracks, with more than one battery supplier, and LeVine points out that it’s not likely that GM would have committed to the idea of a 200 mile range EV without having additional battery suppliers under consideration. Still Akerson’s most recent comments to Business Week seem odd in light of the backstory on Envia, almost as though he’s been out of the loop. Akerson’s subordinates recognized Envia’s shortcomings fairly early on, while he continued to reference the project as though there were no problems.

For more information on the topic, Steve LeVine examines the chemistry and physics of Envia’s battery chemistry here, and Gigaom’s Katie Fehrenbacher does her usual thorough job looking at the litigation that surrounds the company here.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Breaking News: Mary Barra in as GM CEO, First Woman to Run Major Car Company Tue, 10 Dec 2013 15:03:43 +0000 mary-barra-gm

There will be a formal announcement by Dan Akerson later this morning, but now that the U.S. government has divested all of its bailout related shares in General Motors,  Detroit radio stations are reporting that Dan Akerson will be stepping down as Chief Executive Officer of GM and be replaced by Mary Barra. Barra, who has been seen as Akerson’s possible replacement since she took over responsibility for global product development, will be the first woman to run a major American automobile company. More information later, after the Akerson press conference.

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Chevrolet Brand Dead In Europe Thu, 05 Dec 2013 13:31:41 +0000 580x252xopel_chevy.jpg.pagespeed.ic.6E8LDOfjce

After talk of increasing the seperation between Chevrolet and Opel, GM has announced that it will axe the Chevrolet brand in Europe, despite previously aiming to make Chevrolet its low-cost brand, while signing a nine-year, $584 million deal to have the brand sponsor Manchester United football club.

Poor sales of Chevrolet were blamed as the major culprit, with volumes for the brand were estimated to be about 180,000 units, with the bulk of the models being rebadged Daewoos. Axing the brand will reportedly cost GM $1 billion. GM hasn’t said how it will handle the brand’s 1,900 strong dealer network, but Chevrolet will apparently remain in Russia, where its cars are somewhat more popular.

Not long ago, GM was busy touting Chevrolet as a “world brand”, one that could compete in Europe, despite unfavorable market conditions and an internal rivalry with Opel, which occupies roughly the same market space. There was even talk of an end to South Korea imports and production on the continent, but that dream is now over.

While certain models like the Corvette and Camaro will stay on, Chevrolet’s lack of success in Europe, combined with its attempt to move upmarket with products like the Cruze wagon, but it on a collision course with Opel, which is also struggling in a cutthroat, declining European car market.


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Akerson Wants Next GM CEO To Be “Change Agent” Fri, 15 Nov 2013 07:01:45 +0000 Chevrolet Kicks-Off 2011 Woodward Dream Cruise

With reports circulating that General Motors CEO Dan Akerson will step down sometime next year, the executive told Automotive News that he wants his successor to be a change agent and a risk taker. ”There’s no prototypical CEO,” Akerson said. “A good leader has to be innately bright, intellectually curious. They have to be a change agent, never satisfied with the status quo.”

Akerson, whom some say brought more accountability to GM’s bureaucracy said, “You have to establish accountability and an orientation to risk, recognizing that we’re not a fault-free company,” he said. “Have the humility and audacity to say ‘I made a mistake,’ and back up and go down the other way.”

Akerson, 65,  wouldn’t comment on a timeframe for his retirement and said that the choice of someone to replace him will be made by the GM board of directors, which he heads as chairman. ”I think we do have people here that I think fit that bill,” Akerson said, without naming anyone. “Of course, I’m on the board and I’ll have an opinion. But that’s kind of what I would look for.”

Akerson was hired in 2010, an outsider to what he perceives as a insular, parochial industry. He put Bob Ferguson, like himself a former telecommunications executive, in charge of the Cadillac brand. He also picked Mary Barra to be in charge of GM’s global product development though she has a relative lack of experience in vehicle engineering. Barra is considered one of the front runners to replace Akerson when he retires. More recently Akerson gave Barra oversight over GM’s $75 billion purchasing operations.

Besides Barra, others said to be on the short list of those who could replace Akerson are GM North America President Mark Reuss, CFO Dan Ammann and Vice Chairman Steve Girsky.

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Akerson Confirms: Cadillac Will Build Large RWD Flagship, Just Not the Ciel Mon, 22 Jul 2013 20:15:59 +0000

During a visit to USA Today‘s editorial offices, CEO Dan Akerson of General Motors clarified the question of a rear wheel drive Cadillac flagship.  Akerson confirmed that Cadillac is indeed working on a RWD based model that will likely slot in above Cadillac’s current top of the line XTS sedan and probably go on sale in 2015.


According to USA Today, that car will be “very loosely based” on the platform underpinning the new 2014 CTS, not a platform from GM’s Australian subsidiary, Holden, which has supplied platforms for many recent RWD GM cars like the Camaro, the new Chevy police car and the Chevrolet SS. It will come in an AWD version, considered by many in the luxury field to be an essential feature to be able to sell cars north of the Mason-Dixon line. Though the XTS also comes in an AWD version, the new sedan is not likely to replace the biggest current Caddy. Though sometimes derided by enthusiasts, the XTS sells well, in this country and in China. In North America, GM sells about as many XTS models as it does with the CTS. Akerson made a point of saying that the new large sedan will not resemble recent Cadillac concept cars, making it clear without saying so that the Ciel is dead, as was reported recently. The flagship, along with other upcoming Cadillacs will, however, pick up styling cues from the Ciel and other concepts, as evident in the front end of the new CTS that features headlamps units that extend back along the ridge of the front fenders.


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Buick To Share Even More Resources With Opel Mon, 17 Jun 2013 13:41:35 +0000 Opel_Cascada_Front

Opel and Buick are going to get a lot cozier in the coming years if Dan Akerson has his way. The GM CEO wants the two companies to align their product portfolios even further, so that the high R&D costs of Opel products can be absorbed further.

Speaking to Automotive News at an investor conference last week, Akerson told the paper

“What we’re trying to do is bring together the product development teams much more closely,” Akerson said, so that “there will be all sorts of synergies, I believe, between Opel-Vauxhall and Buick….We think we can take costs out that way,” he said. “You’ve got to change the rules of the game in Europe — we do — because of where we are today.”

Opel has been a consistent money loser in Europe, but the firm has provided Buick with the kind of product that has revitalized its lineup. The Buick Verano, Encore and Regal are all derived from Opel products, and the upcoming Opel Cascada convertible (above) is also rumored to be making its way Stateside. The big challenge now will be engineered cars that can appeal to consumers in Europe, America and China, three markets with varying tastes.


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Dan Akerson Sounds Like Musk Thu, 07 Mar 2013 12:55:48 +0000

While other carmakers, including electric pioneer Nissan,  are downgrading their EV euphoria, GM’s CEO Dan Akerson suddenly sounds uncharacteristically gung-ho on the issue. At an industry conference, he says GM is working on developing an electric car that has a range of as much as 200 miles.

“There will be breakthroughs in battery technology, they’re on the horizon,” Akerson said at the IHS CERAWeek energy conference, while Bloomberg was taking notes. “We’re actually developing a car today which is really anathema to the way the auto industry works: We’re running a dual play on the technology to see which one will succeed. One will result in a 100-mile range, the other will be a 200-mile range.”

Even the true believers at GM-Volt are skeptical. Said one commenter:

“Musk talk from Akerson. Sounds like the battery experiments have not crashed and burned yet. Or just get a Model S today.”

I have talked to several large OEMs, and none of them sees a battery breakthrough on the horizon, at least not on an horizon that is visible with the naked eye. Toyota and BMW are collaborating on a lithium air battery, but they aren’t sure whether it will work at all.

Both a 100 mile and a 200 mile EV can be built today. Just load a lot of batteries in it, then, charge a lot. In all senses of the word.

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How A Frequent TTAC Commenter Nearly Became CEO Of General Motors Thu, 24 Jan 2013 15:08:20 +0000

Selim Bingol, GM’s PR bigshot, may not “negotiate with terrorists”, but he nearly wound up working for a terrorist sympathizer who was active on terrorist message boards: Bingol’s former client Ed Whitacre recommended the man as GM’s next leader.

Automotive News reports that Whitacre originally wanted Mark Reuss, son of a former GM exec, to become CEO. In the end, GM got Dan Akerson. So how to explain the TTAC connection?

First, a preface. TTAC is committed to providing a positive experience for the commenters, provided they adhere to the commenting policy. Furthermore, we know that plenty of our readers work in sensitive positions within the industry, and their anonimity is extremely important. However, Reuss ended up outing himself.

Reuss’ s often snarky comments fit TTAC well. Likewise, Reuss would be a perfect fit for the top job at GM. After all, what’s good for North America should be just great for GM. A youthful, knowledgeable, quick-witted Reuss definitely trumps an Akerson, who, according to Whitacre, was openly contemptuous of GM and their products – a charge commonly leveled at TTAC. Imagine that, a TTAC reader occupying the executive suite at General Motors. One can only snicker at the idea of a Manchurian Candidate or sleeper cell planted deep within GM to help undermine the evil labor unions, hard-touch plastics and Voltec R&D programs.

As the son of a former auto executive myself, I know what it’s like to visit Dad at the office and be awestruck by the magnitude and complexity of what goes into putting cool cars on the road – and the desire to fill Dad’s shoes one day, working in the greatest industry on the planet. Just remember Mark, we are not an evil monolith dedicated to bringing down the RenCen, even if your PR guru thinks so.

Reuss is young, and a frequent TTAC commenter can still be CEO. By endorsing him, we may have diminished his odds under the current regime, but there is always hope for a new one.

Care to comment, nadude?

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GM Won’t “Cut and Run” From Opel: Akerson Thu, 15 Nov 2012 15:30:35 +0000

GM CEO Dan Akerson re-affirmed his committment to Opel while speaking at company headquarters in Ruesselsheim, Germany.

A copy of the speech obtained by Reuters has Akerson re-assuring workers that GM is in it for the long haul with respect to Opel.

“As a global auto company, GM needs a strong design, engineering, manufacturing and sales presence in Europe. There’s room for Chevrolet in Europe but Opel fulfills that role…Recommendations that we ‘cut and run’ show you that some people simply do not see how important Opel is to our success.”

There has been significant pressure from analysts to divest from Opel, but Akerson’s speech appears to be a strong signal that GM will hang on to Opel until the bitter end.

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Ewanick’s Position At GM Won’t Be Filled Mon, 15 Oct 2012 18:46:41 +0000

Reports out of the Ren Cen state that departed Chief Marketing Officer Joel Ewanick’s position won’t be filled. Instead, CEO Dan Akerson will delegate those responsibilities to the global heads of Chevrolet and Cadillac.

GM recently hired Bob Ferguson, a former telecom exec and GM lobbyist, to run Cadillac. According to GM, Ferguson is responsible “...for growth of the Cadillac brand…marketing, sales, service — the whole retail experience.” Akerson has come under fire for appointing a lobbyist to a post that is traditionally meant for “car guys”, and the search for a Chevrolet equivalent is apparently open to candidates outside the company as well as current GM employees.

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The Dastardly Details Of Joel Ewanick’s Downfall Wed, 08 Aug 2012 18:06:16 +0000

The latest chapter of the Joel Ewanick saga is unfolding courtesy of Bloomberg. Our long-suffering marketing chief appears to have been sacked in part because he committed the heinous crime of buying cheap furniture.

The first, and apparently most serious charge leveled against Ewanick

“…a whistle-blower stepped forward and the Detroit-based company determined Ewanick was spreading the price of the agreement with English soccer team Manchester United among several different marketing budgets to avoid his boss’s spending limits, the people said. When confronted, Ewanick denied it, they said.”

Horse-trading of this sort is nothing new in large corporations. The Manchester United deal was an astute move given the audience involved (said to be 5 times that of the Super Bowl) and the role it would play in elevating Chevrolet’s status in markets like Europe and Asia.

Even though the target market was spot on, the notorious contempt many Americans have for soccer may have led to poor optics; spending millions of taxpayer dollars to sponsor a soccer team, rather than the Superbowl, may have been poor optics, especially in an election year.

This line of thinking appears to have been poison for Ewanick during his GM tenure. Dan Gorrell, president of consulting firm AutoStrategem told the news service

“While Joel was a risk-taker and big-picture kind of guy, he was not real concerned about the details and that indeed may have been his downfall …his leaving may suggest that GM will take a more conservative, business-as-usual approach in the future.”

An exmple of this sort of thinking? Ewanick committed the sin of not spending more than $2,000 of his $50,000 budget for office furniture – something that Bloomberg charitably categorized as “…an early example of Ewanick going around normal channels…”.  These sorts of idiosyncracies, as well as using four-letter words in public while conversing with one of GM’s ad partners, led GM CEO Dan Akerson to make Ewanick display the “Farley award”, “… a mock-up of Ford’s blue oval logo that has “Farley” instead of “Ford” in the center…” as punishment for his cursing.

Farley, as we all remember, refers to Jim Farley, the Ford marketing chief who famously said “Fuck GM.” If I were Joel Ewanick, I’d have said the same thing when confronted with this puerile grandstanding.

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Automotive News Sheds Light On Akerson’s Role In The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Launch Mon, 06 Aug 2012 16:03:35 +0000

An Automotive News article on the second anniversary of GM CEO Dan Akerson’s tenure sheds some light on the genesis of the Chevrolet Malibu Eco, and the puzzling decision to stagger the launch of the new mid-size sedan.

AN’s Mike Colias reports that

Last year Akerson asked his executive team to accelerate by six months the planned launch of the redesigned Chevrolet Malibu. He got a cool response. The base engine wouldn’t be ready in time for the launch Akerson sought. Debuting with a different powertrain would be costly and potentially delay the launch of higher-volume models, Akerson was warned.

“He was told that it was a mistake,” one a former executive said. “But he couldn’t understand why it would take so long.”

His team dutifully fast-tracked the launch by fitting the car with a readily available 2.4-liter engine paired with a mild hybrid system to create the Malibu Eco. Since its January debut, though, sales have been tepid as GM sold down discounted versions of the outgoing 2012 model.

While a delayed launch would have seen the Malibu going head to head against the all-new Fusion and Accord (while letting the new Altima get a jump on the competition), there’s no doubt that the Malibu Eco has gotten a cool response of its own. Reading Mary Walton’s Car has made me give second thought to armchair criticism of new car launches, but while the DN101 Taurus was supposed to be a world-beater, the Malibu appears to be fraught with compromises needed for international sale, and the victim of a mis-managed rollout.

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General Motors Looking To Cut Engine Lineup By 40 Percent, Add CNG Capability Fri, 29 Jun 2012 16:14:04 +0000

GM’s Dan Akerson spoke to the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board on Thursday, and discussed both compressed natural gas capabilities, and the need to streamline powertrains in the post-bankruptcy era.

Akerson is looking to reduce the number of engines offered by 40 percent, telling the Tribune

“Now that we have gone from eight car brands before bankruptcy, we look to do the same with engines,” 

The issue of natural gas powerplants was also discussed briefly, with Akerson touting the low cost of natural gas and emerging technology to extract natural gas from shale rock formations. Akerson has previously said that dual-fuel CNG/gasoline engines are the way to go due to a lack of CNG infrastructure, but a national energy policy mandating “…a gas station that offers CNG every three or four blocks…” would help.

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GM’s Akerson Asks CAW To Cut Hourly Wage Costs Wed, 13 Jun 2012 18:00:46 +0000

Calling Canada “the most expensive place in the world to build a car right now“, Dan Akerson threw his hat into the “hourly wage costs need to come down” ring at GM’s annual shareholders meeting on Tuesday.

Unlike in the United States, there is no two-tier wage scale for Canadian Auto Workers union members, a decision that prompted GM to close a line at the Oshawa assembly plant, and move production of the Impala and Equinox to plans where workers can make $14 an hour rather than $32 an hour.

GM’s “all-in” labor costs in Canada are estimated to be $60 per hour, whereas the pre-2011 agreement  that GM had signed with the UAW meant that American labor costs pegged at about $56 an hour. Negotiations between the Big Three and the CAW are due once the current labor contracts expire in September. The CAW responded by stating that the strong Canadian dollar and higher labor costs was evened out by increased productivity. GM’s Oshawa plant in particular has a stellar reputation as one of GM’s best plants.

Sparring over things like cost-of-living adjustments has already begun between the two sides, while bonuses based on company profitability are expected to be the biggest sticking point in negotiations.

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Dan Akerson Talks Down Hydrogen, Reveals Natural Gas Plans In Extended Interview Mon, 01 Aug 2011 22:49:37 +0000

In an extended interview with Fareed Zakaria this weekend, GM CEO Dan Akerson repudiated a lot of GM’s previous optimism about hydrogen fuel cell cars, saying

We’re looking at hydrogen fuel cells, which have no carbon emissions, zero. They’re very expensive now, but we’ve, just in the last two years, reduced the price of that technology by $100,000. The car is still too expensive and probably won’t be practical until the 2020-plus period, I don’t know. And then there’s the issue of infrastructure

The DetN points out that GM had previously said that it would have anywhere from 1,000 to “hundreds of thousands” of fuel cell cars on the road by 2010, and most recently said (in 2009) that the technology would be “commercialized” by 2015 and “cost-competitive” by 2020. So, if hydrogen is moving to the back burner, what’s moving up? Akerson revealed that

soon we’ll be introducing “bi-fuel” engines which can burn both compressed natural gas and liquid gasoline.

We’ve seen GM take early steps towards bringing a natural gas-powered car to the road, but this is the first sign from a top executive that a dual-fuel car is a certainty in GM’s near future. By talking down hugely expensive hydrogen cars and talking up cheap natural gas powerplants, Akerson sends a strong message that GM’s green car efforts are moving in a more pragmatic direction. Hit the jump for part two of the interview, in which Akerson talks gas tax and green cars.

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Inside The Mind Of Dan Akerson Mon, 06 Jun 2011 19:48:44 +0000

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.

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Do GM’s On-Off Incentives Help Or Hurt? Tue, 19 Apr 2011 22:58:01 +0000

Speaking at the New York Auto Show today, GM CEO Dan Akerson defended his inconsistent approach to sales incentives, telling the AP [via The Washington Examiner]

I feel pretty good about that. I think we’re in pretty good shape. I don’t want to be a predictable competitor. I don’t want the other guy to know exactly what I’m doing.

For some context,

GM surprised the industry — and Wall Street — when it raised discounts by $400 per vehicle in January and February. Most automakers didn’t raise them because demand for new vehicles has been rising in line with supply…

GM pulled back on its incentives in March, spending $600 to $800 per vehicle less on the deals. But it was too late for some investors, who shied away from the company’s stock because higher rebates lower car companies’ profits.

But does Akerson’s upside, the element of surprise, outweigh the downsides of his hot-cold incentive strategy?

Automotive News [sub] provided evidence that GM’s incentive strategy might not be ideal earlier this month, when it reported

After a blowout February, Buick-GMC dealer Tim Dunne came down to earth last month. Sales at his New Jersey store cooled from 73 new vehicles in February to 59 in March.

The main reason: General Motors ended a loyalty cash incentive and lease pull-ahead deal that had been wildly popular with customers.

“It was kind of sobering to come off that quickly from those incentives,” said Dunne, dealer principal at T&T Coast Buick-GMC in Sea Girt, N.J.

GM’s response, via sales VP Don Johnson:

We’re very sensitive to making sure that the dealers aren’t on and off the gas too much. You’d like it to be a smooth acceleration and/or deceleration. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.

With sales up overall, GM’s dealers (90% of whom are profitable) could have it worse, but the complaint echoes through GM’s history. TTAC has deep archives of dealer complaints about GM’s confusing, inconvenient incentives systems. Akerson’s ability to make virtue of a vice is new, but otherwise it seem that GM still has work to do to make its incentives more effective.

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Happy Labor Day, From GM CEO Dan Akerson Fri, 03 Sep 2010 21:30:43 +0000

Editor’s note: GM CEO Dan Akerson sent the following email to GM’s employees, his first such communication as GM’s CEO, in recognition of Labor Day Weekend Eve.

GM Employees,

As Labor Day approaches in the U.S. and Canada, I would like to wish everyone at General Motors a safe, happy holiday weekend. I also ask that we pause for moment to reflect on what this day means as we celebrate labor’s many contributions here and around the world.

Of course, labor’s role in building up this nation and others is well recognized and rightly so. And, coming from a union family, I know on a very personal level the good things that unions can do.

I met recently with UAW President Bob King and Vice President-GM Department Joe Ashton at Solidarity House, and we agreed that, while we will not always see eye to eye on everything, GM will succeed to the extent that management and labor work together. I believe very deeply in that.

At GM, the devotion by employees to design, build and sell the world’s best vehicles shines through every day. Around the world, we rely on the hard work of our designers, engineers, union represented employees, marketers and corporate staff in the most challenging circumstances. Many in the U.S. worked though our traditional summer downtime to keep our momentum going.

Please accept my sincere thanks for your commitment to General Motors. To employees around the world please know that your work is appreciated. To those in the U.S. and Canada, enjoy this three-day holiday. There will always be more hard work ahead of us, but because of your dedication, I have great optimism for GM’s future.

Dan Akerson

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GM To File IPO Paperwork Tomorrow, Opel Woes Cited As Major Concern Mon, 16 Aug 2010 21:21:15 +0000

Reuters [via ABC] reports that GM has completed its S1 filing and will file Monday, after a Friday the 13th filing was delayed in order to

add a management risk factor after Chief Executive Ed Whitacre announced on Thursday he would step down and be succeeded by Dan Akerson effective September.

And that won’t be the only “risk factor” warning to investors in GM’s S-1. Bloomberg found a number of analysts ready to support the headline

GM’s Akerson to Struggle in Proving to IPO Investors Europe Fixable

Any bets on the number of times the word “Opel” appears in tomorrow’s filing?

It’s no coincidence that Bloomberg describes Akerson’s task not as fixing Opel, but in proving that it can be fixed at all. Over the last two years, Opel’s been flapping in the breeze as management purges, competing visions and political uncertainty prevented a definitive decision until just this year. Even now, GM has chosen not to directly address the Opel issue with a major write-down in recent quarterly filings, despite some $5b in restructuring costs remaining as yet unfunded after the German government backed out of a rescue loan. And European investors like Raimond Saxinger of Frankfurt Trust Investment are starting to wonder where the plan is. Saxinger tells Bloomberg

One of the aspects to consider before deciding upon the IPO is to see a more specific roadmap for how, and by when, they are going to turn Opel around

Read between the lines, and it’s clear that Saxinger means that GM needs to put some skin in the Opel game. But GM clearly thinks the market would prefer that it keeps a big cash pile on hand during the IPO, so it seems unlikely that any kind of Opel decision will be made before the offering. With this, the management change, the challenge of exiting government ownership, GM’s unfunded pension liabilities and the threat of a double-dip recession, at least one analyst worries that

This is an investment based on hope, not on economic reality. This IPO is designed to meet the government’s needs, not investors’ needs. No one is clamoring for a GM IPO right now. This is not Facebook.

Former auto czar Steve Rattner halfway confirms this suspicion by arguing that

This issue of Opel has been way overplayed. Opel lost $500 million in the first quarter and less than $200 million in the second quarter. If they can keep Opel down to that kind of a loss rate, this is not GM’s biggest issue by any stretch of the imagination.

But just because GM faces bigger problems than Opel does not mean Opel isn’t a problem. With the European market weakening and Opel’s market share falling even faster, the trouble isn’t over… and the turnaround hasn’t even begun. On the other hand, if Goldman Sachs is slitting throats in order to underwrite the IPO, there’s still plenty of reasons to expect at least some initial frisson in the early days of public trading. Whether an IPO price will be sustainable has a lot to do with how Akerson sets the tone of his tenure as CEO, and dealing with Opel should be at the top of his list.

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GM Board Pushed Whitacre Out For IPO Fri, 13 Aug 2010 15:49:45 +0000
From the moment GM’s Chairman Ed Whitacre took over for Fritz Henderson as CEO, many wondered how long the 68-year-old Texan would stick around. Apparently GM’s board was not immune from such uncertainty either, as Bloomberg reports that it gave Whitacre an ultimatum: commit to the long haul or get out now. According to reports, several Wall Street banks asked Whitacre whether he would be leading GM long-term during pre-IPO meetings. Whitacre didn’t answer at the time, but the pressure from Wall Street clearly pressed the board’s hand. Since Whitacre ultimately didn’t want to stick around for an extended term (posibly due to the Treasury’s unwillingness to dump all of its stock during GM’s IPO), the board picked Dan Akerson to take over. But how will an unexpected handoff to an unknown executive with no industry experience affect GM’s IPO?

Industry watchers are already giving the leadership changeover a failing grade. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale School of Management and head of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute tells Bloomberg that

This is not a planned succession as it’s being spun. This is not the way it’s done with an IPO. The IPO should be delayed until GM gives the full story behind the leadership change.

There are also concerns from the businesses that rely on GM. After Ed Whitacre axed a number of established GM executives (including his CEO predecessor Fritz Henderson), Whitacre was the one consistent figure in GM… with his departure, at least one supplier company executive is worried, saying

I thought what they needed right now was stability at the executive level. From our perspective, hopefully it’s the same, the overall structure doesn’t change.

But once again, the government has stayed hands-off on the decision despite the fact that it could severely hurt investor optimism going into the IPO. Treasury was reportedly informed of leadership change on August 10 (the day the decision was made) but had no input in the decision. Like the decision to leave the Volt in place, the government was so anxious to not be perceived as meddling in GM’s day-to-day decisions that it allowed a questionable bit of strategy to play out. Less intervention is good, but with tens of billions of taxpayer dollars riding on the IPO, tolerating GM’s decision to put an unproven leader in the saddle shows perhaps too much respect for GM’s corporate culture.

And the cultural impacts of Akerson’s appointment might well be his most lasting impact. After all, the board clearly feels confident enough in GM’s position to allow an unknown quantity to take over. This sense of satisfaction with GM’s curent position belies the overseas chaos, unfunded pension obligations, and troubled new product plans that GM must vigorously address over the next three years. For a company with a long history of cultural complacency, the fact that GM is trying to brush these inescapable challenges under the rug until after the IPO, while promoting an untested place-holder CEO, is highly troubling.

But, according to the Freep, Akerson is what the board thinks Wall Street wants in a GM executive: a Wall Street guy lots of Wall Street connections. This indicates that Akerson might merely be a placeholder as well, shepherding GM through an IPO until either Mark Reuss or Chris Liddell is ready to take over. Another theory is that Chinese firms or private equity might want to make a play for GM, and Akerson’s corporate buyout experience will help ease such a a deal along. But one thing is for certain: few observers expect Akerson to lead GM into a long period of innovation and change. The real question is whether he’ll have the confidence and authority to prevent complacency from once again infecting GM’s corporate culture.

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GM Moving To File $12b-$16b IPO Paperwork On Friday The 13th? Thu, 12 Aug 2010 17:52:52 +0000

One might imagine that GM wouldn’t want to scare anyone away from its forthcoming IPO, but triskadecaphobes might just want to sit this one out. With a $5b credit line reportedly secured from a group of “at least 15″ banks, Reuters [via Automotive News [sub]] reports that GM could file its S1 with the SEC as soon as tomorrow. In case that date is too pregnant with superstition, GM could wait until next Monday to file paperwork. Either way, GM is expected to go public by the Thanksgiving holiday.

Sources tell Bloomberg that GM is aiming for a $12b-$16b IPO, in which the US government would sell about a fifth of its 61 percent stake in GM. That would be enough to reduce the government stake to below 50 percent, but it points away from the full divestiture that Chairman/CEO Ed Whitacre called for just last week. The Canadian government and the UAW VEBA fund have not decided whether they will participate in the IPO, but GM could sell some new shares as well. Bloomberg notes, however, that the exact size of GM’s IPO may not even be detailed in the upcoming S1 filing.

How much money the government will get out of the IPO is another huge question mark. And a lot of that could depend on the deal’s structure, specifically whether GM asks banks to “book build” the IPO by setting a price and marketing the stock to investors, or if a Dutch Auction will be used to set initial pricing. Auto Task Force boss Ron Bloom refuses to reveal details, telling Reuters

We have not yet determined what the exact (deal) structure will be. That will be certainly something we and the company discuss extensively in the period ahead. We are aware of those concerns that have been raised and we’re certain that this IPO … will be done in a fair way

Though Bloom’s insistence on “fairness” indicates a Dutch Auction, there’s still no way of knowing exactly how the offering will be structured.

Meanwhile, questions over Ed Whitacre’s mid-IPO transition out of leadership and the capability of his successor Dan Akerson will be a major concern for investors, who are already being asked to take a risk on GM. It seems unlikely at this point that Akerson will depart noticeably from Whitacre’s strategy, but as longer-term questions arise, his lack of experience in the auto industry could become a liability for GM. As one analyst puts it

With the government’s involvement and the extremely unusual bankruptcy that it went through, there are a number of stakeholders who have very conflicting interests. They need to be very clear about what the plans are for the company and who is going to be making the decisions

Given GM’s poor track record, and the environment of macroeconomic insecurity, addressing these concerns will not be easy. Especially if it becomes obvious that GM will not be able to repay the taxpayer bailout.

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