Is GM America's Leakiest Company?

When word started to slip out last Sunday that General Motors' (NYSE: GM  ) highly visible marketing chief was about to lose his job, a lot of onlookers were surprised -- but not that surprised.

For all of his success in raising Hyundai's (NASDAQOTH: HYMTF) image in America, Joel Ewanick never quite seemed to fit in with CEO Dan Akerson's buttoned-down image. And as for the fact that his departure was leaked to the media before it was even official? That's par for the course with General Motors, a company that has never been particularly good at keeping secrets.

But that's a course that CEO Dan Akerson is now pushing hard to change.

Is GM the leakiest company in America?
People within GM continue to leak details of Ewanick's firing to the media. According to a Bloomberg report on Wednesday that cited several different sources within GM, Ewanick was ousted -- after a series of conflicts with Akerson -- when an internal audit found that he had spread the cost of GM's $559 million sponsorship deal with the Manchester United soccer team among several budgets to avoid triggering spending limits imposed by his boss.

That report clearly crossed a line for Akerson. Speaking in a closed-door, all-hands meeting on Thursday, he slammed the leakers, saying that the report "was almost verbatim what happened," and that it is "unfair to anybody whether you think he's right, wrong, or in-between."

Ewanick, to his credit, apparently hasn't said a word to the media since his dismissal. These leaks are coming from inside GM -- probably from executives near the top of GM's org charts. As Akerson said, that is unfair -- and it won't help GM's efforts to recruit Ewanick's successor.

But leaking details of executive drama is one thing. Leaking details of upcoming products is quite another. But at GM, that's also just par for the course.

Why "everybody knows" about GM's upcoming products
In his closed-door talk to employees on Thursday, Akerson went on to decry product leaks, citing a video of an upcoming truck interior that appeared on a GM fan site -- apparently posted by a GM employee. That may sound outrageous, but leaked details of GM's future products are quite common.

Like many car nerds, this Fool has been following the ups and downs of GM's secret internal product programs for years. It's not hard, if you know which blogs and forums to follow and whose posts to read closely. Cars of particular interest to enthusiasts, like the new Cadillac ATS sedan, are often revealed in considerable detail years before they arrive at dealers. (The one exception: the Chevrolet Corvette, which is considered the Holy Grail of assignments by many within GM. Leaks on upcoming Vettes are few and far between -- but they happen.)

The GM rumor mill has long been a lively one, much to the delight of GM's competitors, who can often figure out what the General is up to long before its new products arrive in showrooms. To some extent, that has been true of all of the Detroit automakers, though Ford's (NYSE: F  ) grapevine seems to have been less fruitful in recent years. Leaks from companies like Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) and Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) seem much less common.

Leaks are inevitable, but why so many?
Still, with hundreds and hundreds of people -- many of whom are employees of suppliers, not the automakers themselves -- involved in a new-vehicle program, and an avid enthusiast press eager for any and all scraps of information, some leakage is inevitable. Just ask Apple, which is known for its tomb-like secrecy -- and which can't help seeing photos of prototype bits and pieces appear on the gadget-geek blogs every year like clockwork. The long lead times and far-flung supplier networks in the auto business make the problem that much greater. Even so, GM is leakier than most.

Any big industrial company making high-interest consumer products will have to deal with leaks to some extent. But Akerson seems determined to shut GM's hyperactive rumor mill down. Leaking is an "act of treason" that "helps the competition," he said on Thursday, and GM employees will soon be asked to promise in writing not to leak information.

This won't be an easy problem to solve. For example, how do I know Akerson said all of this? How do I know that he is determined to shut down GM's leakers once and for all?

Because someone inside GM recorded his presentation and leaked it to the Detroit News.

GM's stock is currently hovering near its post-bankruptcy low. But if Akerson can harness GM's potential, it could have significant upside in coming months as new products hit showrooms and improvements continue around the world. However, investors need to stay attuned to fluctuating demand and the ability of automakers like GM and Ford to respond in unison. For starters, one of our top equity analysts has compiled a premium research report with in-depth analysis on Ford's competitive edge. To find out what could propel Ford down the road, get instant access to this premium report now.

Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of General Motors, Ford, and Apple. Follow him on Twitter at @jrosevear. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of General Motors, Ford, and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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