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Wagoner out? No, not yet.


There has been a lot of media speculation about the fate of General Motors Corp. Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, much of it saying that he is under the gun or on his way out. But today, the company said that he’s not going anywhere. At the company’s board meeting early this week, the directors discussed the media speculation and voiced unanimous backing for Wagoner, according to company insiders. Lead director George Fisher also backed Wagoner up in an interview with the New York Times. The board didn’t take an official vote or issue a statement backing him at the meeting. But the matter was discussed in response to speculation in the press. There was no case made to boot him out.

Is it all just hot air? Right now, that’s all it is. But any question about Wagoner’s tenure is legitimate. The company just reported a second-quarter loss of $15.5 billion. Even taking out special items, GM lost $6.3 billion. One key reason: GM, like its crosstown rivals, was unprepared for rising fuel pries. No one knew oil would reach $140 a barrel this year. But remember that GM fell into crisis back in 2005 when oil got to $50 a barrel. Under Wagoner, GM wasn’t even prepared for that. He relied heavily on sales of gas hogs and mortgage loans at GMAC for profits. There was no backup plan. Plus, GM’s stock is trading around $10 a share, a 70% drop in the past year. Critics have more ammo than Fort Sill.

That said, it’s also not surprising that the board would back him. GM’s board has been extremely generous when it comes to showing patience. Wagoner has restructured GM’s business and taken out billions in cost over the past three years. The board also clearly endorsed his July plan to save or raise $15 billion in cash in the next 18 months through a mix of asset sales, cost cuts and debt. The trouble is that sales have fallen faster than Wagoner’s restructuring moves can bear fruit. Meanwhile, nearly every pitfall—spiking fuel and commodity prices, a tanking economy and the housing mess—have come to bite GM. So Wagoner has sympathetic ears on his board.

The question is, for how long? With such public backing, things would probably have to get a lot worse for the board to move. Or some outsider would have to snap up huge chunks of stock and squeeze the board. Absent that kind of radical change, Wagoner will stay for a while. He has groomed President and COO Fritz Henderson to take over. Henderson was promoted from CFO early this year. Sources close to Wagoner have said for years that the 55-year-old Chairman won’t work until he is 60. So Henderson, 49, could end up taking over in a few years. The way it looks, Wagoner will be able to personally coronate Henderson’s ascension to the top job.


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