Next GM CEO should come from within, Akerson says

Akerson was quoted in a news report earlier this month as saying Steve Girsky, chairman of Opel's supervisory board, is among internal candidates with a shot at replacing him as CEO. Akerson is pictured here with Jason Stein, editor of Automotive News.

Photo credit: Bob Wang
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BEIJING -- General Motors Co. CEO Dan Akerson says he's not talking succession with the board, but that he prefers it tap an internal candidate when it is time for him to move on.

"My preference would be for it to be an internal candidate just because as you might expect, in any company in any industry, it's less disruptive," Akerson said here during a keynote address at the 2012 Automotive News China Conference on Tuesday.

Akerson, 63, who joined GM in July 2009 as a director after it emerged from bankruptcy and became chief executive the following year, said the board, not he, should choose the next CEO.

He told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month that GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, a former industry analyst, is among internal candidates with a shot at replacing him as CEO. North America chief Mark Reuss and global product head Mary Barra are also possibilities, the paper said.

Akerson didn't say how long he wanted to stay in the job. But he did hint to the timeframe: two to five years.

"I owe the board, as every CEO does, what happens if I get run over today? What would I recommend you do, tomorrow," Akerson said. "But that's not what we're really worried about. We're worried about what happens two to five years from now."

Changing jobs

Akerson also recounted his decision to leave the private equity firm The Carlyle Group for GM, where the government was capping pay as a condition of the government's bailout assistance.

When Akerson became CEO, GM agreed to pay him $1.7 million in cash annually, plus $5.3 million in stock over three years.

Akerson conceded that joining GM was a step down in pay, saying at the conference that it "wasn't an economically driven decision by any stretch."

It was a decision of service to company and country, he said.

"I really didn't have the nerve to even call my wife and tell her what was going on," he said. "I waited until I got home. And actually I waited until we went on vacation the next day."

He added: "She wasn't all that impressed with the idea."

Other topics

Akerson touched on a range of topics, from reiterating that U.S. rival Ford Motor Co. should sprinkle "holy water" on its Lincoln luxury brand to complaining about Fox News coverage of the Chevrolet Volt.

"A little bit of holy water wouldn't hurt, I won't back off that," he said of the Lincoln brand. Similar comments to The Detroit News last year taught him about expressing his point of view on competitors, he said.

"This is the funniest industry," he said. "Most industries people are straight up with it. Here everybody slaps everybody on the back, you just got to make sure they don't have a knife with it."

Political football

As for the Volt, "it's become a political football," Akerson said of the plug-in hybrid sedan. "One night I watched Fox News talk about explosions. There was never an explosion. No Volt has ever had a fire."

The safety of the Volt's battery was investigated by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety after a test vehicle caught fire three weeks after a crash test last year.

In November, when the fire became public, an investigation began that ultimately found the Volt to be as safe as other cars.

David Phillips and Bloomberg contributed to this report.

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com. -- Follow Hans on Twitter

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