LONDON - General Motors' plan to install a new chief executive at Adam Opel AG has enraged members of the German subsidiary's supervisory board.
Chairman Hans-Wilhelm Gaeb plans to resign, according to company sources. They say Gaeb is angry about a decision to return Gary Cowger to a key US post after just four months at Opel and replace him with Peter Hanenberger, GM's controversial head of product development outside North America.
Sources say Cowger will replace Gerald Knechtel as the company's chief labor negotiator in the USA. The early departure stunned members of the supervisory board, which scheduled an extraordinary meeting for 26 October to discuss the matter.
Cowger replaced David Herman in June. Herman took over GM operations in the former Soviet Union after running Opel for six years.
Herman became embroiled in an unusually public quarrel with Lou Hughes, former GM International chief. Hughes and Hanenberger were accused by several Opel executives of steering global strategy away from Europe by racing into emerging markets. Critics inside Opel said the company's German engineers have been overworked and demoralized and that Opel has lost ground to archrival Volkswagen.
German unions sided with Herman and threatened to block his removal earlier this year. They relented and accepted Cowger, sources say, only after behind-the-scenes manuevering by Gaeb. But the prospect of Hanenberger has led to new disquiet.
'The management in Detroit is totally out of touch,' said an Opel source.
Under German law, the supervisory board must approve the appointment of a new management board chairman. Sources say GM Europe President Michael Burns met with three non-executive supervisory board members on 16 October and was told that Hanenberger was unacceptable.
'He would only get a few votes,' said an Opel insider close to the board.
Gaeb, 62, joined Opel in 1981 as its top public affairs executive after a career at Ford of Germany. He was later appointed vice president of public affairs at GM Europe in Zurich, but left the post after being appointed supervisory board chairman in July 1997.
An Opel insider said: 'GM management in Detroit put (Gaeb) in an untenable position. He was not consulted about Hanenberger.'
Gaeb was unavailable for comment.
An Opel spokesman said the supervisory board was not notified about the proposed management changes. He said the 26 October meeting was scheduled following speculation in the German press.
'We will ask the shareholder (GM) what is going on,' said Vice Chairman Rudolf Mueller, who also heads Opel's works council. 'We have no understanding at all why Cowger, who has been here barely four months, should be recalled. If this is true nobody on the employees' side will agree to it and I think the management side cannot agree to it either.'
The works council controls 10 of the 20 supervisory board seats, meaning that GM would probably fail to win the required two-thirds majority in the first round to accept Hanenberger. That would set up a second round - after a four-week waiting period - where GM needs a simple majority.
The supervisory board chairman has two votes in case of a tie. But a victory would leave GM facing bitter relations with the works council.
Mueller called for an end to 'meddling by GM International and GM Europe. We were assured about this in a internal document,' he said. 'That was why we agreed to let Herman go and gave Cowger the contract.'
Hanenberger has been a target of criticism in the German press since his name emerged as Cowger's possible replacement. He has been accused of allowing Opel quality problems to fester.
Burns issued a statement crediting Hanenberger with 'a leading role in the major task of integrating our company's engineering activities around the world.'
'I support Peter,' said Burns, 'I believe it is unfair to cite him as an individual in conjunction with criticism of Opel's product and business developments.'
Cowger and Hanenberger declined to comment.
Under GM's new organization, Hanenberger has lost his title within the disbanded International Operations.
He remains a member of Opel's management board in charge of the Technical Development Center in Ruesselsheim, Germany, one of two job hats he wore previously. He retains responsibility for all engineering centers outside North America.