Fritz Henderson may have the most unenviable job in America. His predecessor forced out by the Obama administration and his company barreling toward the uncertain world of bankruptcy, Henderson — who took over as CEO of General Motors Corp. last Tuesday — is in the national spotlight to save one of America’s largest companies in record time.

As he takes on that task, he may be drawing on some of the skills and lessons he learned as a University student almost 30 years ago.

Henderson received his bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University in 1980. During his time here, he was also a walk-on pitcher for the Michigan baseball team from 1978 to 1979 and a William A. Paton Award winner, an award he received after earning a top score on the Michigan certified public accountant examination in 1980.

After his graduation from the University, Henderson went on to Harvard Business School, where he received a master’s degree in business administration before starting his career at GM.

Henderson’s former baseball coach, Moby Benedict, said he knew there was “just something very special about (Henderson)” since the first time they met.

“I thought he had a marvelous personality,” Benedict said. “Always had a smile on his face even though when you see the pictures of him in the paper you wouldn’t believe that. He was a very delightful young man and was a joy to have on the team.”

Benedict said those qualities should help Henderson transform GM, explaining that humor, enthusiasm and a positive personality “are great qualities not only in an athlete but in an executive.”

“He obviously knows the business and wherever they had trouble they would send him,” Benedict said. “I speak very highly of him.”

Others on campus see Henderson’s professional experience as the main factor in his ability to succeed at GM both as a leader and as a reformer. That experience, some say, is a mixed blessing.

Business Prof. Gerald Meyers, who knows Henderson and his predecessor Rick Wagoner personally, said he has faith in Henderson’s ability to lead.

“He is a superb executive,” he said. “He is very well rounded and has very rich experiences. It’s a plus because he is capable and experienced and will do a good job. It’s a minus because he is just another guy out of the GM mold.”

Henderson has worked for most of his career at GM. He served as vice president and managing director of GM Brazil before being appointed president of GM-LAAM, which covers Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. He was later appointed president of GM Asia Pacific, where he opened operations in Korea and China in 2002. He served as chairman of GM Europe until he became president and chief operating officer of GM in 2008.

Business Prof. Martin Zimmerman, a former group vice president of Ford Motor Co., said it’s important to note that Wagoner and Henderson have worked closely together and that the switch is a change in pace but “not a radical change in direction.”

While many people may be confident about Henderson’s ability, Zimmerman said Wagoner’s departure from the company was “largely symbolic.”

“Wagoner was a good executive,” he said. “I think that that was the (Obama) administration indicating that they’re getting tough and demanding change.”

Though he was the object of the Obama administration’s tough stance, Wagoner expressed confidence in his replacement’s abilities, according to a press release.

“Having worked closely with Fritz for many years, I know that he is the ideal person to lead the company through the completion of our restructuring efforts,” Wagoner wrote. “His knowledge of the global industry and the company are exceptional, and he has the intellect, energy and support among GM’ers worldwide to succeed.”

Bruce Belzowski, associate director of the Automotive Analysis Division at the University Transportation Research Institute, said Wagoner’s resignation was “inevitable.” He added, however, that he wasn’t sure if Henderson is “in any better position than Wagoner to turn GM around.”

That turnaround has been the focus of Henderson’s job during the past week.

Last Tuesday, Henderson issued a statement on the topic, saying, “fundamental and lasting changes are necessary to reinvent GM for the long-term.”

“We have significant challenges ahead of us, and a very tight timeline,” Henderson wrote. “I am confident that the GM team will succeed, and that a stronger, healthier GM will play an important role in revitalizing America’s economy and re-establishing its technology leadership and energy independence.”

Zimmerman said that whether or not the company goes into bankruptcy, a lot of sacrifices and changes are going to have to be made for the company to survive.

“GM is going to be a smaller company,” he said. “There are going to be sacrifices on various parties and hopefully GM will survive as a business and keep producing automobiles, but in a lot smaller amount.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.