GM taps Microsoft's Liddell as CFO as the C-suite turns over

Maybe it’s not so hard to get talent to move to Detroit and work for General Motors. The auto giant hired erstwhile Microsoft CFO Christopher Liddell, 51, as its CFO today, as Bloomberg first reported in this story. It was the latest move by Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre, who has been running the company since GM’s board ousted CEO Fritz Henderson on Dec. 2. Liddell may have been on his way out at Microsoft, but his resume is pretty stacked, which hints that GM may be able to get some good talent in to the C-suite.

Want to know the best thing about his resume? It doesn’t say General Motors New York Treasury Office on it. GM is supposed to have the best finance department in the land. The company has plucked top graduates from Harvard Business School for years. The people managing GM’s pension funds have shown a great knack for beating the market, even in the worst of times.

But as business strategists, GM’s money men have been bunglers, says longtime GM watcher Maryann Keller. Roger Smith launched Saturn and bought the first 50% of Saab, she noted. Both plays overextended GM’s limited cash flow, hurt the other brands and ended disastrously. The late Roger Smith also takes a lot of blame for poor product decisions and bad quality. His tenure atop GM is regarded as disastrous. Jack Smith, who ran GM though the ‘90s, spent billions paying dividends to Wall Street and buying shares back even as the company was spending too little on products and marketing. Rick Wagoner, who was ousted earlier this year by the Treasury Department, continued that tactic by paying more than $1 billion a year in dividends while borrowing money to shore up the pension fund and cutting expenditures on new models. He also blew about $4.5 billion to get into and then out of a failed investment in Italy’s Fiat Auto. And let’s not forget that under Wagoner, GM used its GMAC lending business to go headlong into subprime mortgages, which has cost the financier billions in losses. Anyone remember Ditech? That came from GMAC’s mortgage unit.

If that’s not enough, Wagoner also went on a discounting binge to keep the factories running when car sales were going soft. Rather than take on the union and try to manage the paid-layoff clause that just-about guaranteed employment, he turned to rebates, 0% financing and cheap leases. That kept cash flowing in, but it burned up profits and turned GM’s brands into bargain houses. It’s no wonder Steve Rattner, the former chief of the Treasury Department’s Auto Task Force, said GM had the worst management he had ever seen.

It’s also no wonder that Whitacre wants new blood and new thinking. Sure there are many talented people at GM. Car guys like Bob Lutz and Mark Reuss know what car enthusiasts want and how to make those cars. But when it comes to managing the finance department, Whitacre may be smart to get a fresh start.

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