New CEO Charged With Scaling Down GM

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General Motors is trying to figure out the way forward as the Obama administration demands more painful restructuring. The company's chief executive officer, Rick Wagoner, was forced to resign. The new chief executive is Fritz Henderson, a longtime insider who was chief operating officer of GM.

Henderson has a reputation for having a talent with numbers. It will come in handy in the next 60 days. The Obama administration has ordered General Motors to prepare a more realistic plan to survive one of the harshest auto environments ever. Otherwise, the company will be forced into bankruptcy.

Henderson also has a reputation for being determined, a trait he used in the late 1970s to land a spot as a walk-on pitcher for the University of Michigan baseball team.

His former coach, Moby Benedict, says Henderson was a scholar-athlete with an emphasis on scholar.

"He got to pitch on occasion, at the end of the games," Benedict says.

Other pitchers eagerly measured the speed of their fastballs with the radar gun. Not Henderson. He said he was pretty sure his fastball wouldn't even get a speeding ticket.

"But I kept him because of his attitude, and his work ethic, and he just was a nice person to have as a member of the baseball squad," Benedict says.

Benedict followed Henderson's career at GM closely. He watched with pride as global sales improved under Henderson's leadership in Brazil, Asia and Europe.

Henderson returned to the U.S. as GM's chief operating officer last year. But then the bottom dropped out. GM sales around the world and North America are now deeply depressed.

Gerald Meyers, who was the CEO of the now defunct American Motors Corp., says Henderson is capable of helping GM through perhaps its greatest crisis.

"I think he's the complete executive, and I can't think of a dimension that I would want an executive to have that he doesn't possess," says Meyers, who teaches leadership at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

Complete executive or not, Henderson faces a huge challenge. GM is still a vast company employing 240,000 people worldwide. In the next 60 days, GM must gets its bondholders and the UAW to agree to slash $48 billion in debt by half or more.

And the company must prepare a new turnaround plan with even deeper cuts.

"General Motors must become a smaller company, especially in North America, in order to survive," says Sean McAlinden, an economist with the Center for Automotive Research. "It has to cut down on number of products, nameplates, brand divisions it offers the public market, to an acceptable level to break even."

Henderson hasn't spoken about his new post yet. But he has said in the past that he enjoys challenges that others believe are insurmountable. Whether or not he can keep GM out of bankruptcy, Henderson will have to try to figure out a way to salvage this century-old American company.

Tracy Samilton reports for Michigan Radio.

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