The departure of Joel Ewanick as head of global marketing for General Motors is a tantalizing signal about what might be happening within General Motors. It's possible, of course, that he actually did something wrong, but the real signal seems to be that he was an irritant and was roiling the GM culture. This comes at a time when GM has lost market share in the U.S. this year and faces a tough slog in Europe.Its stock price also is down.
It was relatively easy for CEO Dan Akerson to look great in the days following GM's emergence from bankruptcy in 2009. The company shed four brands, cleaned up its balance sheet, struck a fundamentally new position vis a vis the UAW, closed some dealerships and did an overall housekeeping. The question is how Akerson manages for the long term, not just one or two years.
Akerson, a private equity guy with experience in telecommunications, could be revealing his lack of experience in guiding a huge auto manufacturing company. A car company needs the right people in place and they need to be able to think for the long term. By shuffling top management, Akerson could be creating exactly what GM does not need right now--a clear and constant focus on making better cars to claw back ground against Toyota and other global rivals.
Another key decision that Akerson has made also is subject to doubt--putting vice chairman Steve Girsky in charge of GM's European operations is a big bet. Girsky, another private equity guy, has never had experience managing day-to-day auto operations. He knows how to generate headlines by, for example, announcing a big strategic tie-up with Peugot, but there is little substance to that deal. The real task is going to be shutting down one or two auto plants and prevailing over Europe's governments and labor unions. There's no way around that. Is Girsky the guy for that job? It's not yet clear.
If Akerson is beginning to soil his own nest at GM by making flawed decisions about what people to put in what positions, that puts the entire GM turnaround at risk. And the ultimate responsibility for that will rest with Steve Rattner, the so-called auto czar, who elected to stack GM's board and top management with people who did not understand the auto industry.