Whitacre’s biggest challenge yet

I have to admit I was stunned by the news that Ed Whitacre has agreed to be chairman of the board for GM. It looks like retirement isn’t agreeing with the guy who spent the last 20-plus years building the smallest of the regional Bell companies, post-divestiture, into a telecom powerhouse that ultimately swallowed its former parent, AT&T.

Can Ed Whitacre work magic at GM? Granted, he’s the chairman of the board, not the chief executive officer, but Whitacre will still be on the hot seat if the current plans for restructuring GM, post-bankruptcy, into a more nimble and consumer-focused auto maker don’t work.

On the one hand, Whitacre proved remarkably adept at two things: Acquiriing companies and consolidating operations. With the exception of the Ameritech buy, which rocked both former Ameritech customers and ultimately SBC’s reputation for efficiency, Whitacre did an admirable job of finding the synergies of consolidation and driving costs out of the business. That’s experience which could serve GM well. He managed merger after merger while rarely slowing the pace of progress, something many of his telecom colleagues struggled to do even on a smaller scale. Along the way, SBC continued to shed jobs, something GM is also having to do.

Whitacre was less adept at marketing, and at competiting for consumer dollars. His approach to handling the media and public relations, which survives to this day at AT&T, is much less about winning friends and influencing people and much more about absolute control over whatever information escapes the corporate walls.

As for leading a nimble, consumer-focused company? Sorry, I can’t see it. Whether discussing Net Neutrality - remember his famous comments to Business Week -- or defending AT&T’s decision not to deploy fiber-to-the-home, Whitacre’s focus was usually on his investors and on Wall Street, and not on the consumer.

Of course, given that GM’s primary investors are now the U.S. taxpayers, having Ed Whitacre on board looking out for our interests might not be such a bad thing.

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