GM's Succession Plan Gets Clearer

General Motors just about paved the way for Fritz Henderson, its newly-minted president and chief operating officer, to eventually take over the corner office from Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner. The company promoted Henderson (pictured above) on March 3 after giving the finance whiz and rapid-fire talker a series of high-level promotions since 1997. Henderson is 49 and occupies a seat that GM has kept open since Wagoner was annointed CEO back in 2000.

Henderson’s progression to GM’s top seat has been in the making for years. Since 1997, he has swept through top jobs running GM’s Latin American, Asian and European business units. He pulled off mostly-successful restructuring jobs in every one. He even got GM’s perpetually-bleeding European business to make money. The region did slip back into the red last year.

In his most recent post as Vice Chairman and CFO, Henderson took lead on some of the most of the thankless jobs the company had to offer. He was a key player in getting the union to sign off on a landmark contract last fall that could save the company. Henderson also was boss on the sale of 51% of GMAC to Cerberus Capital Management. Usually, GM buys companies right before their value sinks. Remember investments in Fiat or Isuzu, anyone? But Henderson sold half of GMAC right before its mortgage business started hemorrhaging. That still hurts GM’s profits, but at least Cerberus is around the share the pain. Wagoner also stuck Henderson with the three-way negotiations between GM, the United Auto Workers and bankrupt parts maker Delphi. He has had to bargain buyout deals for union workers that would help Delphi clear the way to hire lower-paid factory hands. In that case, Delphi still has yet to emerge from bankruptcy.

Henderson’s next job will likely be running GM after Wagoner retires. When that will be is pure speculation. Wagoner is 55. GM insiders have speculated for years that he wouldn’t run the company past his late ‘50s. Who knows when he will actually retire. But the succession plan appears to be in place.

What isn’t clear, and it’s a problem Henderson must solve, is who will replace Vice Chairman of product development Bob Lutz? The 76-year-old car czar has spearheaded a styling renaissance at GM and is writing his legacy with the Chevrolet Volt electric car. He has hinted that once the Volt is for sale, which should be in 2010 or 2011, he might finally pack it in. Henderson is a finance guy whose credentials include getting the highest score on the May 1980 CPA exam. That’s wonderful, but it still means he needs a car guy. Some GM executives say that Jon Lauckner, GM’s vice president of vehicle program manager, could take over for Lutz. That also is just guesswork. Henderson will probably be the guy making that call. Assuming the promotions and departures go as expected, finding a worthy successor to Lutz could one day be one of his biggest decisions.

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