GM's chairman goes silent

GM chairman Ed Whitacre, who seized the CEO spot a week ago, still has a lot of questions to answer about the future of the taxpayer-owned automaker.

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By Chris Isidore, senior writer

GM Chairman and new CEO Ed Whitacre has yet to answer press questions since forcing Fritz Henderson out of the CEO spot a week ago.

NEW YORK ( -- Ed Whitacre, the chairman and for now the CEO of General Motors, is still not answering questions about the leadership shakeup at the taxpayer-owned automaker, a week after he promised he would make himself available to such questions.

GM had scheduled Whitacre to speak to the press Tuesday morning, a week after he and the GM board sought and received the resignation of CEO Fritz Henderson.

But Monday, Whitacre was dropped from that press call, and GM announced questions would be taken by two lower-level executives -- Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, and Susan Docherty, vice president, sales, service and marketing.

GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson said that Whitacre's availability had changed and that he should never have been listed as being on the Tuesday morning call. But the most pressing questions for the automaker are ones that can only be answered well above Reuss and Docherty's pay grade. They need answers from Whitacre.

When he read a brief prepared statement last Tuesday to announce Henderson's departure, Whitacre refused to answer any questions about the change but promised he would see the press again to answer questions "before long."

"I promise all of you we'll make ourselves available in the next few days to spend more time with you answering questions. And I know you must have a lot of them," he said at that time.

But GM spokespeople now will only promise that such press availability will be coming at some point later this month.

Burning questions

The No. 1 question is: What were the areas of disagreement between Henderson and the board that led to his departure? Did they differ over whether to sell GM's Opel unit in Europe? Did Henderson's inability to close the deal to sell Saab play a role?

Granted, the official reasons given for CEO departures typically are foggy -- the reason that previous CEO Rick Wagoner was forced out in March by the Treasury Department weren't spelled out until Treasury's top auto advisor Steve Rattner wrote a piece for Fortune magazine in October.

But by answering questions about policy differences, Whitacre would give the company's owners, in this case all U.S. taxpayers, important insight into what path GM will now pursue, and what mistakes he feels had been made since the company emerged from bankruptcy in July.

Sources say Whitacre told GM employees on Wednesday that Henderson and the board were on somewhat different paths, moving at different speeds and with different emphasis. But that doesn't answer many questions about the substance of those differences.

It would also be helpful to know how long Whitacre expects the search for a new CEO to take, and whether only outside candidates will be considered, or if internal candidates also are in the mix.

Given that U.S. taxpayers own 61% of GM shares, it'd be more than interesting to know if the GM board believes Henderson had the right timetable and focus for an initial public offering which would allow the sale of those shares.

Henderson was on record saying the company would be ready to offer shares in the second half of 2010 if market conditions permitted such a sale, while Whitacre has suggested it was too soon to talk about plans for an IPO. If he thinks an IPO before the end of 2010 is unrealistic, taxpayers have a right to know that.

Also yet to be answered are questions about the shakeup announced Friday of the rest of GM management, which put Reuss and Docherty in their new positions. Unknown is whether this was the end of the reorganization on that level or whether outsiders will be brought in to fill some positions on the organizational chart that are now left open, such as president of the overall company.

It would also help to know just how much time Whitacre is spending on his new job as interim CEO.

He said during his brief appearance a week ago that he would now be in GM's Detroit headquarters on a daily basis. But turning around a behemoth as large as GM is more than a full-time job.

Whitacre, who retired as chairman and CEO of AT&T (T, Fortune 500) two years ago, agreed to be a non-executive chairman of the company when he joined the board in July. Is he going to be a hands-on, 12- to 14-hour a day executive, or will he be delegating more day-to-day duties to his new management team?

A GM spokesman had no comment when all these questions were posed to him Monday.

There were plenty of questions about whether Henderson and his predecessor Wagoner were the right leaders to make the necessary changes at GM. But they at least made themselves available to answer questions in both good times and bad. To top of page

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