Keeping up with GM's Fritz Henderson

The CEO of General Motors wants to move fast to get his company out of bankruptcy as soon as possible.

By Alex Taylor III, senior editor

Find your next Car

DETROIT (Fortune) -- General Motors is racing through the early stages of its bankruptcy, in the hope of emerging as a new, independent company by August or early September.

It's a breakneck pace, dictated by CEO Fritz Henderson, who succeeded Rick Wagoner as CEO on March 29, 2009.

Henderson operates at race-track speeds, and speed will be the hallmark of the Henderson era at GM. He talks about it constantly: How he will eliminate layers in the GM bureaucracy to speed up decision making, and empower subordinates to make decisions further down in the organization.

Henderson practices what he preaches. Instead of waiting until he has all of the available data before making a call, he likes to run when he has just four-fifths of it in hand. "Give me 80% of the information and almost every decision will be the right decision, and not wait around for the last 20%. That takes a lot of time and time has real value," he says.

I spoke with him recently at GM headquarters in Detroit. Henderson talks fast, and is never, apparently, at a loss for words.

He hopes GM (GMGMQ) will emerge from bankruptcy like an alcoholic who has not only sworn off booze, but gone on a diet, undergone a religious conversion, and gotten a face lift.

Shorn of surplus brands, surplus capacity, surplus dealers, and surplus debt, he believes the company will have an opportunity to pay attention to sales and marketing in ways it hasn't had to before.

Unlike his predecessors, Henderson plans to focus on the revenue side of the business, developing better products, building stronger brands, and selling them smarter.

'We give a challenge to our product development organization," he says. "We're going to have 34 nameplates in our lineup. Every one has got to be a winner. It is not like we are trying to do 70 or 80."

He also wants GM to focus on the here and now. "The days when General Motors would say 'just wait for the products of the future' [are over]. I'm just as excited about marketing to someone who is in the market today."

Henderson is far more bottom-line oriented than his predecessors. He's pushed GM's fuel cell program way to the back-burner because it is years from producing a commercial product.

And he is reshaping the company's outlook in other ways, too. "We're never going to get General Motors turned around by just focusing on the Chevrolet Volt {an electric vehicle coming late next year]. I am really excited about that but I am really charged up by the new Chevrolet Equinox, the new Cadillac SRX."

He'll have to move fast. Auto sales have stopped falling year-over-year but they have showed few signs of improvement.

And Henderson's new bosses in Washington, DC are watching carefully. They are the ones, who, without warning, asked for Wagoner's resignation and suggested that Henderson succeed him. If they believe he isn't up to the task, they likely wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger again.

"In my case, there are no guarantees," says Henderson. "I think my job is always on the line, but that's okay." For some executives, that would cause them to anxiously move more quickly, but with Henderson you get the feeling he is already operating at the speed limit. To top of page

More Galleries