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Whitacre to Become Permanent GM CEO?

Announcement could come late this morning.

by on Jan.25, 2010

Why is this man smiling? Perhaps because "Big Ed" Whitacre will be named GM's permanent CEO, while retaining his Chairman's post.

It looks like “Big Ed” Whitacre could be around a little longer than he originally anticipated – and in a role neither he nor General Motors had originally planned on.

Well-placed sources echo wire reports that Edward Whitacre, Jr. will be formally named the permanent CEO of GM, this morning.  A briefing is scheduled for this morning, 11:30 AM EST, though for the moment, GM officials will only say that the rushed news conference is to discuss “business activities.”

The former CEO of the telecomm giant SBC, which became AT&T, Whitacre joined GM as its non-executive Chairman, last July, following its emergence from bankruptcy.  The 68-year-old Texan initially declined the offer, made by the White House, which is overseeing the government’s 60% stake in GM.  But Whitacre eventually agreed to what observers thought would be a brief and relatively outside role steering the automaker’s restructuring.

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That changed dramatically, on November 30th, when the Whitacre-led GM Board of Directors ousted former CEO Fritz Henderson.  The Texas-born executive stepped into the role as “Acting” CEO, while a nationwide search was begun.

Earlier this month, Whitacre suggested the search hadn’t progressed very far, though an outside headhunting firm had come up with a number of potential candidates.  The list also appeared to include Chris Liddell, the new GM Chief Financial Officer, who was recruited, late last year, from Microsoft.

But in a roundtable discussion with reporters, Whitacre didn’t much to deny his interest in retaining the post, which insiders say he has actively engaged in.  Since taking on the acting post, the executive has ordered substantial changes in the company’s senior management structure, with an emphasis on speeding up a plodding bureaucracy often compared to a battleship adrift in rough seas.

Along with hiring Liddell, Whitacre has appointed a new president for North American operations, Mark Reuss, and a new head of sales and marketing, Susan Docherty, while bringing in a pair of former associates from his SBC days to head GM’s lobbying force in Washington, where Whitacre admits there are some signs of open hostility in the wake of the more than $50 billion bailout the government put together to keep the automaker in business.

Whitacre has said repeatedly that he intends to pay back $8.1 billion in U.S. and Canadian government loans by June 1st.  He has been less forthcoming about the timing of a planned Initial Public Offering that would turn GM back into a public company and buy out the government’s stake in the automaker.

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