CFO departure throws spanner in GM’s gears

March 10, 2011

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

By Antony Currie

General Motors is starting to look careless with its senior executives. Last August Ed Whitacre stepped down as CEO after only a few months on the job and right before the automaker was set to go public. Now the Motown manufacturer has lost its well-regarded finance chief Chris Liddell. Some management turnover should be expected — and is a sharp contrast to the longevity of the lead-footed bigwigs who steered GM into bankruptcy. But Liddell’s swift departure just over a year after he joined leaves the impression that GM’s top management is struggling to gel.

The automaker benefited from the former Microsoft chief financial officer’s level-headed approach, not least as a foil to Whitacre’s grand prognostications that GM could repay within months the entire $50 billion it owed the U.S. government for its bailout. That carried even more weight since most presumed Liddell was at GM for the long term while then 68-year-old Whitacre wasn’t expected to stay for more than a couple of years.

What’s more, Liddell’s appointment had sent a message that the new and improved GM was gathering the best and the brightest regardless of their background, rather than relying only on Detroit’s limited talent pool. And it was clear from the start that Liddell wanted to be more than just head of finance. Microsoft said when he left that he “wanted to expand his career beyond being a CFO.” Granted, Whitacre’s abrupt departure last summer forced GM’s hand, but at the very least, the board failed to manage the expectations of one of its most important new hires.

It’s true that Liddell’s replacement is well versed in the business — Dan Ammann was one of GM’s consiglieres in his former life as head of industrials banking at Morgan Stanley before leaving to become the automaker’s treasurer last year.

But shareholders are already concerned about the effect of rising oil prices on high-margin truck and SUV sales, fueled by boss Dan Akerson, barely six months into the job, saying the auto industry didn’t learn enough from the last oil shock. With its stock already trading below last year’s IPO price, the last thing GM needed was to lose one of its star performers.

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