GM nears end of distracting trail of failed deals

 @ibtimes on December 24 2009 11:00 AM

General Motors Co emerged from a 40-day bankruptcy in July with a newfound zeal that things at the top U.S. automaker would never be the same.

But fast forward five months and the headlines about GM are dominated by a frustrated round of deal-making that has defined a period where the automaker had been hoping to make a clean break with its troubled past.

Former CEO Fritz Henderson had vowed that a new GM would focus on listening to its customers and reforming a risk-averse corporate culture blamed for its long-running decline.

Henderson and other executives said a restructuring funded with $50 billion in U.S. aid gave GM the chance to stop worrying about financial engineering and focus instead on engineering better cars and selling more of them.

If we don't get this right, nothing else is going to work, Henderson said. Business as usual is over at General Motors.

GM's plan coming out of Chapter 11 had been to focus attention on its core brands -- Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC -- as it sold off or closed the rest.

But the wreckage left behind by that strategy has been an unwelcome distraction and contributed to a shake-up of management that saw Henderson's dismissal.

Since September, a deal by GM to sell its Saturn brand has collapsed, an offer to sell its European unit Opel was pulled, the sale of Hummer to a Chinese firm has been delayed and Saab now faces closure.

GM said it would wind down Saab after concluding that it could not reach a deal with sports car builder Spyker Cars. But Spyker upped the ante with a revised offer and representatives of both sides have remained in contact this week, but the chances of a deal are seen as remote.

SAAB: OUT WITH A WHIMPER?

Spyker CEO Victor Muller told Reuters on Wednesday that he expected an outcome in the latest round of discussions after Christmas.

Absent a reprieve for Saab, GM would be winding down the money-losing, 60-year-old Swedish brand in January, just as the automaker looks to build buzz for upcoming models.

Saab is a black eye for the former GM management and for Fritz Henderson, said Gerald Meyers, a University of Michigan business professor and former American Motors CEO. It was one of (the) things GM said it was going to do and failed to do.

Henderson had advocated the sale of the Opel and Vauxhall brands to a Russian-backed group led by auto parts supplier Magna International in a deal supported by the German government.

But GM's board, led by Chairman and now CEO Ed Whitacre, broke with him on Opel in November, rejecting the sale and setting the stage for Henderson's departure and the installation of a new senior management team this month.

In September, Penske Automotive Group pulled out of a deal to buy Saturn the day before it was expected to close. China's Tenzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery awaits Beijing's approval to complete a purchase of Hummer.

Dennis Virag, president of Automotive Consulting Group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said that GM needs to rid itself of Saab and Hummer so it can focus on its new products.

If you look at 2010 models, the newest are nice vehicles. They are well-built and of high quality, and the technology is good, Virag said. There is a lot of good product coming out of GM, but the bureaucracy is disrupting.

The drama in GM's boardroom and the uncertainty surrounding its smaller brands like Saab has kept the focus away from its attempt to sell its revamped line-up to U.S. consumers.

Whitacre, like his immediate predecessors, has argued that American consumers are unaware of how much better GM's new vehicles, such as the Chevy Malibu, have become.

Data shows GM is still struggling to bring shoppers into showrooms, in contrast with Ford, which avoided bankruptcy, and has kept a laser focus on its upcoming products under CEO Alan Mulally.

CNW Research said its survey of dealers shows that car shoppers who see a new Malibu opt to buy one at a much higher rate than those who see the competing Ford Fusion.

But the Fusion is outselling the Malibu by a margin of 12 percent this year because GM is not getting enough consumers to visit its showrooms and kick the tires, it said.

In another contrast with GM, Ford is about to successfully sell a third brand, avoiding the distraction that has shadowed its larger rival this year.

Ford said on Wednesday it was nearing an agreement to sell its Volvo unit to China's Geely. It sold Jaguar and Land Rover to India's Tata Motors Ltd in 2008 and sold British-based Aston Martin in 2007.

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit)

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