DETROIT - Rick Wagoner joined General Motors' treasury department as an analyst 31 years ago, some five years after the World's Largest Automaker hired its first African-American designer, Ed Welburn. In the early part of this decade, Welburn designed the Chevrolet SSR and Wagoner, by then chief executive office and soon to become chairman, pushed for its production.
It got better, at least on the product side, as Wagoner became chairman and Welburn became design chief. Among the positive developments under Wagoner's watch:
* The Cadillac CTS, giving way to the much-improved second-generation CTS.
* The latest Chevy Malibu, the 2011 Cruze, the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and Chevy Traverse.
* The 2010 Chevrolet Equinox, Cadillac SRX, Buick LaCrosse.
* The Opel Insignia and GM's general success in China and Russia.
* The Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky/Opel GT, the General's first all-new roadsters since the '53 Corvette and its Motorama concept bretheren.
* The 2011 Chevy Volt.
* The 2007 United Auto Workers contract and billions saved in cutting costs and globalizing the business.
* The Corvette ZR1.
The ZR1 was Wagoner's idea, codenamed after the Duke Blue Devils, his favorite college basketball team, even if he was too modest to take credit. Duke University didn't make the Final Four and won't play at Ford Field in Detroit this week. I don't expect Wagoner to be in town, either.
President Obama has called for Wagoner's head. As I predicted months ago -- okay, as maybe four dozen pundits predicted months ago -- GM's CEO and chairman is the sacrificial lamb in the GM/Chrysler federal loan guarantee debacle. Two weeks ago, Obama's auto task force visited GM's Warren, Michigan, Tech Center and a Chrysler LLC factory. Late last week, Wagoner was in Washington, apparently offering himself up in exchange for up to $30 billion in loan guarantees so that GM wouldn't be forced into an "organized bankruptcy," even if that contingency still looms.
And so Wagoner, according to The New York Times and other outlets on Sunday, resigns from the top job at GM immediately (click here to read his official statement), while Lutz eases his way out, retiring at the end of the year.
I'm not about to gloss over Wagoner's failures. His company hasn't seen profit since 2004. It has lost $84 billion since then, much of that due to "special items," the automaker's answer to derivatives. It didn't lose all that money building and selling cars, though the core business didn't do well, either.
Other pundits point to GM's market share loss, from 33 percent when Wagoner became GM North America's president in 1994 to less than 19 percent last month (it was in the 20-22-percent range for most of last year).
GM has been heading in that direction since about the time Wagoner joined the automaker, in 1977. Blame former chairmen Roger Smith and John F. Smith, who figured it was better to spend billions starting or buying new divisions, Saturn, Saab and Hummer, when it could have spent the billions on something other than badges for its existing brands.
Wagoner can take blame for such blunders as the $2 billion GM spent to avoid having to buy Fiat. Another $1 billion-plus was paid to Oldsmobile dealers. More recently, appearing before Congress and having nothing to say when asked exactly how much money GM needed. And waiting until then to devise a plan to weed out too many divisions for 20-percent market share.
This may be sufficient enough fault for the Obama administration to have its scapegoat in Rick Wagoner. On the other hand, Wagoner is better qualified than anyone who might replace him to finally lead GM into the 21st Century. And he was doing that, even if in the deliberate manner befitting a huge, bureaucratic organization. His successor announced Monday morning, chief operating officer Fritz Henderson, won't do things too differently. He's another GM lifer, and he'll run the company much like his humbled predecessor.
And that's the good news. Wagoner was slow to change GM's ways. The fact that he did, and the fact that he recognized the need for someone like Bob Lutz to lead product development, made him a better chairman than either Roger Smith or John F. Smith. If not for the credit crisis that hit the industry five days after GM's 100th anniversary, and if not for the politics that led Wagoner to cut his salary to $1 for 2009, he would be leading GM to its revival now, if not its renaissance.
Or as one company insider, an Obama supporter who prefers to be identified only as "one of the growing disillusioned" put it, "I can't wait to tell the administration what we intend to do with the $1 it's saving us."