02 December 2009

Fritz Henderson Bows Out Of The Game At GM

Detroit Free Press

Fritz Henderson, who pitched for the University of Michigan in the late 1970s, once said his only regret in life was that he didn't have a 97-mile-per-hour fastball.

Even that might not have been enough. The government put him in charge of General Motors when the bases were loaded, an excruciating bankruptcy restructuring was on deck and a new board of directors in the dugout expected nothing less than a perfect game.

Well, Henderson can take a hot shower, take a deep breath and join that growing club of former auto executives who are still young and vital enough to forge a new career path.

"We had a million things to get done in a very short period of time," the 51-year-old Detroit native told a group of Free Press editors and reporters last week.

Ed Whitacre and the new GM board of directors wanted more.

Henderson, the son of a sales manager in the Buick division, was not just a GM lifer. He was a paratrooper. Nearly every assignment he faced after joining the company's New York treasurer's office in 1984 involved a turnaround. In 2004, he took over as president of GM Europe as it was hemorrhaging money and getting ready to pay $2 billion to Fiat to unwind a disastrous partnership created by his predecessor.

Before that, he helped grow GM's business and profits in China and closed the purchase of Korea's Daewoo, from which GM has invigorated its small car offerings in the emerging markets of Asia and Eastern Europe. Henderson also made his mark in South America, where he bolstered GM's already-strong position in Brazil and Argentina.

"He's been all over the world and had been very successful everywhere he went," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "But he's definitely not a patient man."

Upon graduating from U-M in 1980, he earned the highest score in the state of Michigan on the exam for certified public accountants. He worked as an accountant in Detroit for a year or so before entering Harvard Business School, graduating in 1984 and joining GM's New York treasurer's office, which has long been a training ground for the company's future chief executives.

What triggered his resignation is not yet clear. The board reversed a decision, previously supported by Henderson, to sell controlling interest in Opel to generate desperately needed cash to rescue GM's North American business. But after emerging from bankruptcy, keeping Opel became an option.

The board may have lost patience with GM's inability to close the sale of Saturn and, more recently, Saab. Even a deal to sell Hummer to China's Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery has not yet closed.

Many said that only an outsider, similar to Chrysler chief Sergio Marchionne, can deliver a wholesale transformation of a culture as historically hidebound as GM. In that respect, Henderson may have been a victim of his résumé and his loyalty.

Not much is clear, as new CEO Whitacre said nothing Tuesday beyond reading a four-paragraph statement. In paragraph two, he said the leadership team -- many of whom are GM lifers like Henderson -- is united and committed to the task at hand.

Henderson's time on the mound is over. Whitacre has turned to the bullpen.

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