Why is GM's CEO Still Employed?

Terry Keenan
With 30,000 pink slips out there and counting, no doubt the crisis at GM has already become one of the top business stories of 2005. But absent from most of the coverage is any discussion of the mother of all pink slips for GM CEO Richard "Rick" Wagoner.

In fact, it is most curious that given the level of carnage in rank-and-file positions, the endless sea of red ink, and the shareholder activism of the post-Enron era, that virtually no one has called for Mr. Wagoner's head, even as the bad news mounts day after day. In fact, the 52-year-old Wagoner seems exceedingly confident in his employment prospects. Just last week, he told reporters he has given "no thought" to the possibility of stepping down — this as GM stock continues to trade at levels not seen since 1992.

That year should have special meaning to Wagoner and his fellow executives at Renaissance Center, for that was the year that GM’s outside directors finally ousted the former management in a successful attempt to avert bankruptcy. Luckily for Wagoner, his board doesn't seem nearly as impatient.

And one look at the current board members explains why. It is littered with executives who fared no better than Wagoner in turning around their sick companies: former Compaq chief Eckhard Pfeiffer (remember him?), former Kodak CEO George Fisher and Percy Barnevik, the man who almost pushed Europe's ABB into the ground. Yet this is the "brain trust" Wagoner is relying on to help him with what is arguably the most difficult turnaround job in decades. What ever happened to the era of better corporate governance and accountability?

To be sure, Wagoner was given a near-Herculean task to begin with when he took over the reigns at GM in 2000. Still, at virtually every turn it seems this GM management team made the wrong one — even on those rare occasions when the company was holding most of the chips — as was the case with the magnificently bungled auction of its coveted GM Hughes division.

But it wasn't just the Hughes debacle, Wagoner also oversaw GM's disastrous investments in Fuji and Fiat, costing billions of dollars and the automaker's relentless reliance on SUV sales.

One person surely trying to make sense of it all is billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian. With 9.9 percent of GM's stock, he and his investment vehicle Tricinda have been curiously quiet of late. Don't expect that to last much longer. In the past, Kerkorian has been known to demand board representation in companies where he has a sizeable stake, and GM will not likely prove to be the exception.

A board seat or two for Mr. Kerkorian and his cronies would surely be Rick Wagoner's worst nightmare. But perhaps a major shake-up of the board and the executive suite is the only medicine that can stop the bleeding at what was once the world's greatest manufacturer.

Terry Keenan is the anchor of Cashin’ In and an FNC business correspondent.

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