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When Ford (NYSE: F ) first announced that Boeing engineer Alan Mulally would be joining the company as CEO, there was a lot of hand-wringing among Detroit-watchers. He's not a car guy, they said. He's coming from an industry that serves a very different marketplace. He doesn't understand the auto business. How can he succeed?
But as we all know, Mulally turned out to be a great leader for Ford. And even though I was surprised by his hire, I haven't been surprised by much that he's done since. That's partly because he and his team have communicated their intentions well, and partly because his moves have just made so much sense. It was clear what needed to happen at Ford, and he has been making it happen.
But some recent moves by CEO Dan Akerson make me wonder if we'll be able to say the same about General Motors (NYSE: GM ) .
The head-scratching reorganization
Akerson has only been on the job for a few months, but some of his moves have been puzzling. For instance, why did he just kick Bob Lutz's successor as product chief, the well-regarded Tom Stephens, upstairs -- and hand the job to the company's human resources head?
GM's products came a long way over the past decade, thanks in large part to efforts set in motion by Detroit icon Bob Lutz, the company's now-retired vice chairman and product-development chief. But the company needs to continue its upward trajectory, and while recent signs like the Chevy Volt are promising, much remains to be done. Leading that product design charge might be the most critical job in the whole company.
So why might Akerson think that Mary Barra, most recently GM's VP of global HR, is the person to do it? Here are a couple of possibilities:
- She's not exactly an HR person. Before being put in charge of HR -- a role she took on to help drive cultural change within GM, something it dearly needed -- she had spent years working in a variety of GM posts related to manufacturing and had acquired a reputation for getting diverse groups to work together. She also has experience in adapting global vehicle "platforms" for regional markets, something the company has been doing more of recently (and should be doing more of going forward).
- This isn't exactly Lutz's old job. Stephens was promoted into a newly created role as GM's global technology leader, following Joel Ewanick's recent promotion into a new role as head of global marketing. Barra's job may be less about conceiving bold new products on her own and more about distilling Stephens' and Ewanick's input into a clear mandate for the product-development staff -- about using GM's technology advantages to serve customers well, in other words.
To be clear, Barra's clearly a capable executive, despite the fact that her resume is not what you would expect for Bob Lutz's heir. But maybe Lutz -- who was the man behind all of GM's acclaimed new products, from the Volt to the Cadillac CTS -- is being replaced by a new way of conceiving products and bringing them to market.
Could this actually be a good thing?
Color me seriously skeptical
Time will answer that question, but I can't say I've been profoundly impressed by Akerson so far. He may be struggling to pick up the nuances of the business, something he hinted at in an interview he gave to The Wall Street Journal a few weeks back. In it he described his new job by saying, "It's like studying for finals every night."
But make no mistake: Understanding or not, Dan is a man with a plan. And that plan involves remaking GM as a "consumer-driven" company, while doing things like benchmarking GM's engine portfolio against Toyota's (NYSE: TM ) because, in his view, the company has too many engines. That would be fine if GM's global product lineup duplicated Toyota's, which it doesn't. (It's exactly these kinds of nuances that worry me.)
Akerson's drive to make GM "consumer-driven" instead of "engineering-driven" sounds great on the surface, but it reminds me of GM's old habit of trying to wallpaper over product deficiencies with slick marketing. On the other hand, a corporate philosophy that aimed to have every new GM product be a "gotta-have" hit would be a great thing if it worked. But can Akerson get there from here?
What do you think? Is there a method to Akerson's seeming madness? Scroll down to leave a comment and let me know.
Want to stay on top of GM's turnaround? Add the company to My Watchlist to find all of the Fool's analysis on the General's ongoing return to glory (or, um, not).