Friday, June 10, 2011

General Motors CEO Dan Akerson Predicts 'Amazing' Future

The future of General Motors Co. -- the new GM -- will be, in a word, "amazing," GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson told the company's shareholders during its 2011 annual meeting Tuesday morning.

Acknowledging that the largest American automaker almost made history by "not making a future," Akerson told shareholders the new GM has made significant progress and monumental changes in how it operates since emerging from Chapter 11.

The problems that almost put the company out of business, he noted, were decades in the making. Fifty years ago, company executives were focused on things that seem trivial today -- how large the fins on a new 1961 model would be or how to squeeze 50 more horsepower into an engine.

History suggests that they were not focused on the things that would eventually pose serious threats to the company, Akerson said. Things such as brand amalgamation, an evermore crowded marketplace and competition from around the world, more stringent environmental regulations that impact how vehicles operate as well as how they are produced, demand for greater fuel efficiency, the rapid pace of technological innovation and the need to remain on the cutting edge.

Today, having learned from experience, Akerson said GM has refocused its energies and made important changes in how it operates. It is a daunting task, he acknowledged, "but we are invigorated by the challenges." Emerging from bankruptcy was not just a second chance, he said, "but a rebirth.

"No one is doing a victory lap, we still have a lot to do," he cautioned, referring to the undertaking as a "massive turnaround." But, there are "many factors in our favor."

Among the most important changes is the company's ability to turn a profit on both its top-end luxury vehicles, SUVs and trucks and its base models, i.e. affordably priced small cars that appeal to the masses. That is possible Akerson explained, because GM is producing vehicles that customers want, cars such as the Lordstown, Ohio-built Chevrolet Cruze, the top-selling compact car in America just five months after it was introduced, and the Chevrolet Volt, the first extended-range electric in the market. "These are the right vehicles at the right time in our history," he asserted.

Referring to the Buick Verano and Chevrolet Sonic, one displayed to his left, the other to his right on the stage inside the historic Fisher Building where the annual meeting took place, Akerson said that this is the "ideal time" to launch such vehicles.

Both cars were unveiled during the North American International Auto Show in January and will roll into dealer showrooms in coming months. The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is small, fuel-efficient model that offers the athletic ride and agility of a sports car. The Verano is Buick's first compact luxury sedan.

Because these vehicles are what consumers want, and have all of the comforts and amenities that they want, the automaker is able to charge a premium price, driving up profits, Akerson told shareholders. And, he said, "This is just the tip of the iceberg of what is to come.

"The new GM is building momentum. The company is experiencing solid growth, gaining market share, boosting profits and reducing liabilities, Akerson said. It has added 9,000 jobs in the United States since emerging from bankruptcy, reduced the complexity in how it operates and has achieved this despite shedding some of its brands, a drastic move, he says, that worried him and his colleagues.

Akerson told his audience that the company has also introduced an exercise he refers to as "tough love."During these tough-love sessions, he explained, GM executives work in groups identifying the company's vulnerabilities and imagining how, if they were a competitor, they could best attack those vulnerabilities. "It was very enlightening," Akerson observed. "I learned a lot." The goal, he said, is for GM to address its own vulnerabilities before its competitors identify them.

GM's future, he continued, stretches far beyond the borders of the United States. Chevrolet, he happily reported, is among the five most recognizable automotive brands in the world. In the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India and China] countries, GM dominates the market and anticipates rapid growth, Akerson continued. By 2015, the said GM expects to sell 12 million vehicles there.

There are, however, still many challenges. While the company has "made great strides in Europe, there is still much to do," Akerson said. There is also still much work to be done to fund the company's pension liabilities.

While challenges remain, Akerson said he is confident the new GM is on the right path, anticipating changes in the market better than ever before and focusing on what consumers want. "We have a new attitude," he said. "We expect to win. We strive to win and that's what this company and its leadership is about."

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