NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In my column on June 22, I questioned the appointment of Fritz Henderson as CEO of General Motors, not because Henderson isn't a good guy but because he was part of the old guard that created the insulated and somewhat arrogant culture that took GM to the brink in the first place. I mention this because it seems that Chairman Ed Whitacre and GM's board finally has figured this out. Not that I'm gloating mind you. You hate to see anybody of Henderson's caliber unceremoniously dumped. But the appointment was doomed from the beginning if what GM is after is true operational and cultural change. Now the drama continues. Who will be Henderson's successor? Had I written this column immediately after the announcement was made, I would have predicted one of two people -- either Whitacre himself, known from his AT&T ( T) days as being a hands-on kind of leader, or Bob Lutz, the golden boy of the automotive design world. Now, after seeing the next round of changes in GM over the last few days, I believe it comes down to Lutz as the heir apparent. For one thing, while Mark Reuss was appointed to head the GM North American business, the more telling young executive appointment was Susan Docherty, who has now taken the top sales and marketing position. This last move essentially puts in place Lutz's successor and frees him up to take on new responsibilities. Of course, GM has stated that Lutz's role as vice chairman is as a mentor for the newer executives and as an adviser to Whitacre to "learn the automobile industry."
Seriously? Whitacre is just now adding an adviser to help him learn about the company to which he was appointed chairman? Lutz is going to be paid big sums of money to be a mentor? While I think none of this is untrue, it clearly paints only part of the picture. CEOs act as advisers and liaisons with boards of directors. CEOs act as mentors to younger top executives. It sounds to me like Lutz has been made CEO already with some time necessary before finalizing the title. Would Lutz make a good GM CEO? Who knows? But maybe. Lutz has always been a contrarian in the automotive industry, yet there is arguably nobody with the depth of experience that he brings. His resume includes time at GM as well as vice president of Ford ( F), executive vice president at BMW, and president of Chrysler. He has been responsible, in whole or in part, for the design of such models as the Ford Sierra, the BMW 3-series, the Dodge Viper and Prowler, Buick Lacrosse and many others. He knows the industry and the market better than anybody can imagine. A report Sunday in the Wall Street Journal said GM has tapped executive-search firm Spencer Stuart to help it find a permanent CEO. Lutz plays the whole discussion down and was heard to say at the Los Angeles Auto show that the public doesn't care about management changes as much as the media does. "People buy product, not management," he said. While this may be true to a degree, it is only part of the picture. Shareholders buy managers, boards buy managers, and for sure, employees buy managers.
Whether I'm right or wrong about Lutz being the next CEO, the board of General Motors has now started a pace of change that it has to continue. A new CEO needs to be named soon or the introduction of new models and processes will be overshadowed by speculation about the leadership. In order to rebuild the integrity of GM and the automotive sector in general, these changes need to be made soon and with transparency. Until then, the media will continue to set the agenda for the dialogue and GM will spend more time answering questions than it will promoting new products. -- Written by Todd Thomas in Southfield, Mich.