CEO of 'New' GM: 'We Simply Have to Prove Ourselves'

Carmaker Emerges From Bankruptcy, Taps Bob Lutz for Marketing

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DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- The "new" General Motors Co. emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy today, 40 days after being shepherded into the proceedings by the Obama administration, talking about the "beginning of change" but conceding that, in the words of President-CEO Fritz Henderson, "we simply have to prove ourselves" to the American car buyer.

Fritz Henderson
Fritz Henderson Credit: AP
One of the changes announced today at GM's world headquarters here was the return of 77-year-old Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, who was scheduled to retire at the end of the year, to assume responsibility for all brand marketing, advertising, communications and customer relations.

"We are unretiring Bob Lutz ... a change agent," Mr. Henderson said. In addition to his marketing duties, Mr. Lutz will work closely with his successor on the product-development side, Vice Chairman Tom Stephens.

Mr. Lutz has already called meetings for next week with officials of GM's remaining four vehicle brands to see proposed ad work and to get him up to speed on some of the most current messaging. Speaking with reporters after the press conference, he quipped that the reason he was tapped to oversee advertising and communications is that he has "always been a vocal critic of the stuff we do," so the top brass told him to "fix it."

Cutting management
Mr. Henderson also said 35% of GM's management will be cut. He said he will provide more details later this month, though he did say the job of president of North American operations has been eliminated. He did not reveal the fate of Troy Clarke, who holds that post.

Nor did Mr. Henderson address the future of Mark LaNeve, VP-marketing, sales and service in North America. The CEO said GM is separating marketing from sales, and Mr. LaNeve "is the head of sales today and is responsible for sales numbers this month." Mr. LaNeve did not return calls for comment.

GM, now a private company in which the U.S. Treasury Department holds a 60.8% stake, "will be the most public private company" until its expected initial public offering next year, Mr. Henderson said.

As part of GM's outreach to prove itself to the American public, Mr. Henderson will start a "Tell Fritz" website, where customers can share ideas, concerns or suggestions directly with the CEO and GM's senior management. Mr. Henderson said he will personally respond to some of the messages every day. He'll also hit the road with other GM leaders to meet regularly with consumers across the country starting in August.

He is also scheduled to host a 30-minute chat today starting at 4:30 p.m. ET on the company's Twitter page, @gmblogs. The public is invited to submit questions using the hashtag #Fritz.

Pilot program
Mr. Henderson announced that GM will start a pilot program with eBay in California to auction new cars on the site to experiment with online buying. "People will be able to bid on vehicles, including the buy-it-now price," he said. The marketer will tweak the program with dealers in the next few weeks. "Our goal is to make the shopping and buying process easier."

The news conference also marked the first public appearance for GM of Edward Whitacre Jr., the new board chairman handpicked by the federal government's auto task force.

"I've always admired this company," the former chairman-CEO of AT&T said today. "For 100 years GM was among the world's greatest companies, and it deserves to be there again. It will be there again."

Mr. Whitacre told Advertising Age he owns a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV, a Chevy Avalanche and a GMC Yukon SUV.

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