GM's Turnaround Opportunity

Fasten your seat belts if you're a General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) shareholder, because you're in for one heck of a ride. Activist investor Kirk Kerkorian has set up talks between GM and the Renault-Nissan (Nasdaq: NSANY  ) alliance to see whether an overseas influence might be able to fix what's ailing the American giant. Kerkorian holds 10% of the company's stock, so when he brings an idea to the table, the board is likely to take him seriously.

Some observers think of this as a Kerkorian power grab, and it might very well be. However, I think it's a great idea, for two very good reasons: globalism and Ghosn. Call it the two Gs.

The first G describes a truly global operation, with three well-established design teams from very different backgrounds and cultures being connected directly to each other under such an alliance. The pooled resources and the creative sparks that could fly with such diverse talents connected in this way could bring about good things not only for GM, but also for its European and Japanese partners. It would truly be a motley band of Fools.

If you want more tangible advantages of an alliance spanning three continents, I'd like to point to parts and materials sourcing. The supply-chain efficiencies that resulted from the Renault-Nissan hookup is often held up as a great example of operational efficiency done right. GM could certainly stand to benefit from those synergies, considering the wrench that the Delphi debacle threw into its machinery.

Our second G is Carlos Ghosn, CEO of both Renault and Nissan. He rose to prominence by turning Michelin North America around from a company hemorrhaging money to one producing cash flow in just a couple of years, and when he took over the wheel at a badly sputtering Nissan in 2000, he promised to deliver net profits within three years. He did it in two.

When he joined Nissan, Ghosn wasn't afraid to tackle the extremely traditional and rigidly bureaucratic Japanese corporate culture head-on. He cut longstanding ties with parts suppliers and dealerships when they couldn't add anything to the operation. Doing that as a gaijin outsider, and still ending up celebrated by his subordinates and peers, is about as impressive a business performance as you'll ever see.

GM suffers from many of the same symptoms Ghosn has already proved that he knows how to handle. We've already touched on the supply chain and the unreliable partners. GM's pension plans and traditionalist culture can stand in for hard-headed samurai honor, and the miserable business performance is a perfect match.

Today, Nissan boasts top-to-bottom margins that are second only to archrival Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) and rising faster than any other carmaker's -- though DaimlerChrysler (NYSE: DCX  ) comes close. If Ghosn is willing to take on the workload and responsibility of running three companies headquartered on different continents, with combined annual sales well beyond $300 billion last year, I see no reason why he wouldn't succeed. In fact, I think he might be the only person who can do the job.

With the GM board's blessing, the three-headed beast may soon become a reality. I, for one, welcome our new turnaround-ninja overlord.

More Foolish reading:

Fool contributorAnders Bylundowns stock in Nissan and 0.42 GM shares (really). He also drives a Nissan (bought before the stock), and his wife drives a Toyota. Foolishdisclosuredoesn't need a turnaround expert -- it's firing on all 16 cylinders already.


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