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‘Outsider’ spinning new wheels at GM

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Proclaiming that he’s “not a car guy,” Daniel Akerson is the outsider who became CEO of General Motors Co. in August 2010. And an outsider’s approach is what’s needed, say many, in running a company scarred by financial trauma and too attached to old ways.

Here’s how the veteran of Nextel, MCI and Carlyle Group is turning his newcomer’s perspective into an advantage:

√ He effectively, sometimes jarringly, shifts the conversation. Though he’s trained in engineering, Akerson brings a strong emphasis on marketing to GM.

At a recent meeting with his executive team, he interrupted a technical discussion on a future vehicle.

“See this can?” Akerson asked, picking up his Diet Coke. “It’s a consumer product. GM has to start acting like a consumer-driven, not engineering-driven, company. We sell a consumer product—our can just costs $30,000.”

√ He pushes back against complacent timelines. When he saw that several promising vehicles wouldn’t be ready until 2014, he said, “During World War II, GM produced tanks and equipment within four years. Why should it take four years to put a car out?”

He told a design director, who’s responsible for new Corvette styling slated for availability in 2014, “If you make this happen by 2013, I will make you a vice president.”

√ He questions the unquestionable. Reviewing engine plans, Akerson stopped managers in midpresentation. “Why do we have 18 types of engines? We have only four brands,” he said. “We have to break out of the old way of thinking around here.”

He asked executives to use an “outside benchmark”—Toyota’s number of engines—and “take out complexity and save money” by reducing the number of engines. Next year, GM will offer only a dozen.

√ He compensates for any experience gaps with discipline and passion. When he runs a company, he memorizes all the figures on profit, loss, margin and risk, so executives can’t slide things by him.

Being an outsider, he says, means facing a steep learning curve: “It’s like studying for finals every night.”

— Adapted from “‘I’m Not a Car Guy’: On the Road With the New Man at GM’s Wheel,” Monica Langley and Sharon Terlep, The Wall Street Journal.

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