GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
General Motors' turnaround, as we just heard, has been described as something akin to a miracle. And an achievement touted by President Obama Tuesday night in his State of the Union address.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, General Motors is back on top as the world's number one automaker.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
RAZ: Now, in some circles, GM is still derided as Government Motors. American taxpayers own about a quarter of GM's stock. But after a near-death experience in 2008, few would have predicted GM, just three years on, would once again become the world's biggest automaker.
Daniel Akerson became CEO and chairman of GM in 2010. He's already shaken up the car company. And when I spoke with him, I asked why he's been reluctant to trumpet the good news that GM is now back on top.
DANIEL AKERSON: Well, I mean, for a couple of reasons: A, I think humility is a nice trait for a corporation to have. And as I said, publicly, that wasn't a goal we set out. It is a metric. It's a milestone toward to a broader agenda, which includes - we want to produce the world's best vehicles, improve our margins, our cash flow and our profitability. So it's a good indicator of potential of future success, but we have a long, long road to walk.
RAZ: Now, I know and I've read that you really don't like what I'm about to say, this moniker, Government Motors that some people call GM. And I understand why you wouldn't like that. So here's my question: What do you think it will take to free GM of government ownership?
AKERSON: Well, I don't like that because it implies that somehow the government is calling us on Monday and telling us that we're going to paint models coming off the production lines a certain color, or we're going to develop or prioritize vehicle development differently than we would if we were a profit-oriented organization.
The objective of the government was not to act as, if you will, a private equity firm and try to maximize returns. Their objective, as I understood it at the time, and I think this is true to this day, was a broader agenda. It was for the industrial policy of the country and for the well-being of its citizens. And that, I think, has been an unqualified success. And at some point in time, they will determine when they feel their mission has been accomplished, and they will sell their shares.
RAZ: Before you took this job, you were in private equity. And I've read that you are or you were a Republican - and I don't know either way if that's the case. But I'm curious about your view philosophically about this idea of the government intervening to bail out an industry. I mean, at the time, did you find it troubling, as many proponents of free enterprise have argued, it was?
AKERSON: I think sometimes people stylize the image of how the economy works, because we have never been a truly 100 percent unadulterated capitalist system. Otherwise, your mother, as she aged in time or your father and could not produce, you don't kick them to the curb. You take care of your senior citizens, you take care of those among us that are unable to do as well as others, and you take care of your youth.
And so there's this kind of hybrid, if you will, of our capitalist system. So there are times when government has a role, in my opinion, and there are times it should let the market ultimately determine winners and losers. In this particular instance, to be - have uncertainty surrounding a company of this size and this magnitude for a long period of time, I think, would have been just devastating and probably have condemned it to the heap.
RAZ: I want to ask you about the Volt, GM's plug-in electric hybrid. Firstly, it still accounts for a small fraction of sales. GM, of course, still makes most of its money in luxury brands, in trucks and SUVs. So, to what extent is electric really the future of the company?
AKERSON: This is a critical decade or two for the automotive - for the transportation industry because of social needs. Do we want to leave an environment, a planet that's better than the one we inherited from the prior generations? I have children and grandchildren, and indeed I want that. And so advanced propulsion is critical to the evolution of our means of transportation. And it will come.
We are spending money, research and development dollars. We never abated on that. We spend on the order of $7.5 billion a year on advanced engineering. And it's all in an effort to prepare for the future where you are propelling different forms of transportation and there's no carbon footprint.
RAZ: The federal investigation looking into whether the Volt's battery could catch fire, of course, has been closed. GM has been cleared. But I wonder whether it's still did some damage to the brand. And if so, how do you recover?
AKERSON: I think it did have some collateral damage because it was a situation that ran on for 45 to 60 days, and a lot of negative press. And it's kind of like you can do everything great, but the negative always gets amplified.
RAZ: Dan Akerson, how fragile is the comeback for GM?
AKERSON: Well, I think it's pretty solid. (Unintelligible) with you, I think we're doing well. This company sold over nine million vehicles worldwide. And two and a half million of those were sold in the United States. GM has the largest market share of any one company in the world as well. We are a great exporter of technology. We have good diversified operations around the world, and indeed I think we are producing, we're designing, building and selling some of the world's best vehicles.
RAZ: That's Daniel Akerson. He's the chairman and CEO of General Motors, now, once again, the world's number one selling automaker. Daniel Akerson, thank you so much.
AKERSON: Thank you, Guy.
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