Will the new GM escape the curse of the old?

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There have been two main theories of why things went so wrong at General Motors. One is that the company is run by a bunch of ingrown retreads with no sense of where the automotive business was headed. The other is that the company’s management has been so burdened by commitments (to pensions, to retiree health care, to union work rules) made back when the company was gigantic and dominant that it hasn’t had time to focus on where the automotive business was headed.

Now we get to find out which explanation was right. GM management will still be heavy on the ingrown retreads. CEO Fritz Henderson is a GM lifer. Bob Lutz, at 77, is back again—in part because, Henderson said at a press conference this morning, “this is the best way to keep Bob from recycling to a fresh set of OEMs.” (At least, I think that’s what he said. Can anybody tell me what language he was speaking?) And new chairman Ed Whitacre is, while not ingrown, certainly a retread. He’s the man who successfully reassembled a good chunk of the old AT&T monopoly. Just the kind of next-generation leader we need. Later, on a conference call with reporters, somebody asked Henderson about the lack of new blood. “As we fill out the key slots, you’re gonna see some unusual names in these jobs,” he replied. Another reporter wanted to know if that meant unconventional internal promotions, or people from outside. “The former,” Henderson said. “I’m not closed to outside blood, but until we know how we pay people we can’t hire anybody.” Fair enough.

Meanwhile, the burden of past commitments has been lifted, at least partially. GM entered Chapter 11 with what the WSJ says were “$176 billion in liabilities to retirees, warranties and a legion of lenders including the U.S. government.” It leaves bankruptcy today with about $48 billion in debts. That still sounds like a lot, given that the new GM is a smaller company with a smaller revenue stream. But when I asked Henderson about it, his response was that fixed obligations (as opposed to accounts payable and such), consisted just of $10.5 billion in debt, $9 billion in preferred shares, and some as-yet-undetermined pension fund contributions that will be due in 2013 or 2014. “I think in terms of the balance sheet it is a world apart from what it was,” he said. “The level of indebtness for the company is not excessive.”

I’ve generally leaned toward the too-many-liabilities explanation for GM’s troubles, mainly because the company’s successes overseas—especially in China—indicated that its managers, however ingrown they might be, were reasonably smart and capable. It’s just that in the U.S. their No. 1 priority had to be keeping sales volumes high enough to keep the debt payments and retiree health care flowing, a focus that didn’t really lend itself to reinvention or innovation. Now that burden, and excuse, is mostly gone. So I’m betting that GM will now start looking like a much better-run company. The question is whether it’s too late.

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