By Ben Klayman and Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Dan Akerson, who retired as chief executive of General Motors Co, on Wednesday, urged his replacement and others at the No.1 U.S. automaker to avoid the decades of short-term thinking that led to its 2009 bankruptcy.
Akerson, who was replaced on Wednesday by the industry’s first female CEO, Mary Barra, told a roomful of industry executives that GM was no longer “fragile” and has the strength to succeed, but needs to maintain changes such as a competitive labor cost structure as it moves forward.
“That’s one of the things I tried to stress: When we make a decision today let’s make it and ask what are the successors going to think of us in 2043, when we look out 30 years,” he said.
Akerson said at an Automotive News conference held in conjunction with the Detroit auto show that the seeds of GM’s bankruptcy were sewn in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. He took the CEO job in 2010 before GM’s re-emergence as a public company because he believed it could be turned around.
The automotive industry in the past was run by executives with bigger-than-life personalities, but Akerson said he never tried to mirror them.
“I want to be able to look back at this company in 2020, 2025 and 2030 when I‘m really old and say I was part of that success,” he said, “and I hope Mary is gangbusters successful and my name fades to black.”
Barra was treated like a star during the early days of the auto show this week with media cameras shadowing her every move, but Akerson said she would not let the attention distract her.
“She’s a well-balanced, very self-aware individual,” he said. “She’ll do fine. She’s not going to somehow lose it because her picture is on the front page of a magazine.”
Some critics have pointed out that the U.S. government ended up with a $10 billion loss on its $49.5 billion bailout of GM, but Akerson pointed out that the company has invested that much in plants and jobs in the country.
Akerson, who retired earlier than expected to spend time with his wife who is fighting cancer, said his goal when he took the CEO job was to make the company profitable again, get it back into the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, repay the government, see the U.S. Treasury exit its stake, and reinstate a dividend. GM completed that list with the Tuesday announcement it would pay its first dividend in six years.
Akerson said GM’s U.S. pension deficit was now about a quarter of the $26 billion it was when he took over.
He also said he was optimistic about the money-losing Opel unit in Europe, which gained market share in that region last year for the first time in 14 years. GM has said it is targeting a return to break-even financials in that business by mid-decade.
The former CEO said GM still needs to build its brand image, suggesting if a BMW logo was put on the Chevrolet Impala sedan it would be worth $10,000 to $20,000 more.
Akerson also said GM needed to maintain competitive labor costs in North America. He had been asked whether GM needed to retain the two-tier wage structure, that pays newer hires at a far lower pay level, for its blue-collar workforce.
His comments come ahead of 2015 labor contract talks between the United Auto Workers union and the U.S. Detroit automakers.