The face of change at GM
Can turnaround specialist Jerry York save the embattled automaker? That he's willing to even try is good news.
(FORTUNE Magazine) - As General Motors' newest board member and designated agent of change, Jerry York is, for now anyway, wielding a velvet hammer. The mild-mannered yet steely-smart advisor to billionaire GM investor Kirk Kerkorian wants to shake things up at the automaker, not smash it to pieces.
A well-traveled all-star CFO, York has previously helped orchestrate turnarounds at IBM (Research) and Chrysler. So maybe there's something to his strategy of compassionate confrontation. But those successes pale in comparison to the task of fixing GM (Research).
There's been plenty of well- informed pessimism lately over the company's future (see this magazine's most recent cover story, "The Tragedy of GM."), but knowing York, I'm thinking that he just might be complicated enough for this most complicated of jobs. A West Point graduate who "thinks different" enough to be on Apple's board, York unveiled his blueprint for GM's resurgence this January in a speech he gave to auto analysts in Detroit. He joined the board in early February.
Does York really think he can turn around General Motors? Obviously, says a person familiar with his thinking. Otherwise he would have counseled Kerkorian to keep his money in T-bills rather than risking $1.2 billion in GM stock.
Let's remember, GM's creditors might do okay if it files for bankruptcy. But it's a nightmare scenario for Kerkorian. As a holder of common equity, he would be wiped out. Those familiar with York's thinking say that he believes that the chances of GM's going bankrupt are remote, and could be triggered only by some sort of world economic event outside the company's control that would have a devastating impact on auto sales.
Of course, York's prognosis contrasts starkly with that of other equally astute observers. But GM stockholders may take heart from knowing that he is the rare individual who has worked at each of the Big Three automakers. At the very least, he adds badly needed auto expertise to GM's board, which, besides CEO Rick Wagoner, amazingly doesn't include a single other auto industry executive.
But is York really interested in helping General Motors, or is he just a mole for Kerkorian? That's also complicated. When he joined the GM board, York agreed not to feed Kerkorian any nonpublic information. As Kerkorian's advisor, isn't that going to be nearly impossible? Folks close to York deny that would happen. One source told me that it isn't a big deal anyway, because Kerkorian is content with his current 9.9% stake in GM and isn't interested in buying or selling. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised to see Kerkorian boost his stake if he and York see the company making sufficient progress.
Ah, yes, that. Progress. Measured how? York will urge management to follow these points from his January speech: (1) Match costs to realistic market share and revenue expectations, (2) cut product offerings, (3) review the entire company with a clean-slate perspective, (4) sell or close noncore businesses, and (5) instill a "sense of purpose."
GM has already made some of those moves, but people familiar with the situation say it still has a ways to go in his mind. Such as jettisoning Saab and Hummer. And cutting pay on a percentage basis for all salaried employees, which is what York calls "equality of sacrifice" (a phrase he borrowed from a chapter in Lee Iacocca's 1984 autobiography). There isn't much evidence that GM has gone through an all-encompassing cost-reduction program like the ones he led at Chrysler and IBM.
So far, York has kept mum since becoming a board member. But if he doesn't see results soon, he may begin pressuring the company publicly. GM needs to instill a crisis mindset. And right now the company doesn't have any sort of rigorous, 200-day battle plan to revive itself. If it doesn't get one soon, Jerry may be taking the velvet off his hammer.
ANDY SERWER, editor at large of FORTUNE, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read him online in Street Life on fortune.com and watch him on CNN's American Morning and In the Money.