Richard Drew, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Dan Akerson is hardly a corporate diplomat.
The chairman and chief executive at General Motors Co. says publicly what other CEOs say in private: he disses competitors' cars and laments his company's lumbering bureaucracy. He's told reporters that Ford should "sprinkle holy water" on its troubled Lincoln luxury brand, and has called Toyota's Prius hybrid a "geek-mobile." His candor often rattles the nerves of GM's public relations staff.
And you know what makes him really mad?
"There is a resistance to change," at GM, Akerson recently told The Associated Press.
By all accounts, though, the auto giant is moving at a faster pace under his leadership as he tries to overcome the resistance.
Akerson is not the first to complain about GM's bureaucracy. But for the first time in years, the automaker has somebody at the top with an outsider's vision and a will to make changes to keep profits flowing and return the company to the glory years of a generation ago.
GM now has a lineup of cars and trucks that are selling well, and it has turned a profit for nearly two years straight. The stock, although trading far below analysts' targets, is once again catching the eye of portfolio managers.
Yet for Akerson, who took the CEO job 15 months ago, the work has just begun, and it hasn't gone totally as planned. He's being tested by a federal investigation into battery fires after crash tests in the Chevrolet Volt electric car, and he's grappling to fix GM's high-cost European operations, which are losing money.
Akerson was recruited by the federal government to join GM's board in 2009 just as the company was leaving bankruptcy protection. The government was majority owner at the time, and Akerson thought his management, financial and engineering skills — he's the former head of XO Communications — could help a company so important to the U.S. economy.
The U.S. Naval Academy graduate, who grew up in Minnesota, admits he knew little about cars in the beginning. But now he speaks with authority on everything from transmissions to batteries.
Akerson, who often uses military metaphors, spoke with The Associated Press in New York about the car industry, the economy, his management style and the future of electric cars. Excerpts appear below, edited for length and clarity.
Q: Would you recall all 6,000 Volts to strengthen the battery?
A: If we find that is the solution, we will retrofit every one of them. By the way, if someone wants to sell it back to us now, we'll take that too. We're quite confident that we'll find a solution.
Q: Do you think the news about the Chevy Volt will harm sales of electric vehicles?
A: This car is safe. There is nothing happening immediately after the crash. I think in the interest of General Motors, the industry, the electrification of the car, it's better to get it right now, when you have 6,000 — instead of 60,000 or 600,000 — cars on the road. We're not the only car company that has liquid cooled batteries out there. There are many. So we think this is the right thing to do for our customers, first and foremost, and it was the right thing to do for General Motors and the industry.
Q: Are you moving past the early technology adopters on the Volt at this point, or has any data surprised you on who is actually buying this vehicle?
A: The average purchaser of a Volt is earning $170,000 a year. About a third of the customers haven't been in a Chevy store in more than five years and half have never been in there. They aren't just early adopters.
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