Video: New GM chairman

updated 6/9/2009 3:17:45 PM ET 2009-06-09T19:17:45

A former CEO and chairman of telecommunications giant AT&T Inc. will lead General Motors Corp.’s board after the automaker emerges from bankruptcy protection, GM said Tuesday.

Edward Whitacre Jr., 67, eventually will replace Kent Kresa, who will remain GM’s interim chairman until the reorganized automaker emerges as a new company that’s majority-owned by the U.S. government.

Whitacre was chairman and chief executive of AT&T and its predecessor companies from 1990 to 2007. During his tenure, he led the company through several acquisitions and sales.

Whitacre sits on the boards of Exxon Mobil Corp. and the railroad company Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.

GM said Whitacre will join the nucleus of a new board that will include Kresa and current members Philip A. Laskawy, Kathryn V. Marinello, Erroll B. Davis Jr., E. Neville Isdell and CEO Fritz Henderson.

The remaining six members of the current GM board will “most likely retire” by the time most of GM’s assets are sold to the new GM in bankruptcy court, the company said in a statement. Kresa is leading a selection process to pick four new directors, while the Canadian government, which also is providing financial aid to the company, will pick a board member and a United Auto Workers union retiree health care trust will select another.

That will bring the board of the new company to 13 members, one more than the current board.

Kresa, a GM board member since 2003, was named interim chairman in March when the Obama administration’s auto task force forced out Rick Wagoner as chairman and CEO. Henderson, GM’s former president and chief operating officer, was named CEO and continues in that role.

GM has been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since June 1 as it seeks to reorganize and shed unwanted assets. So far it has received about $20 billion in loans from the U.S. government.

“The appointment of Ed Whitacre as chairman represents a very auspicious beginning for the New GM,” Kresa, a former chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman Corp., said in the statement. “We look forward to working with him to complete the reinvention of GM and maximize the enormous potential of this new enterprise.”

Whitacre made his name by building regional phone company Southwestern Bell into the largest telecommunications provider in the country, snapping up the AT&T brand along the way.

Telecom industry analyst Victor Schnee at Probe Financial said Whitacre’s appointment to GM was “bizarre.”

“The guy accomplished a number of things in telecom and we all thought the book was closed,” Schnee said.

Whitacre was “old-school empire builder,” Schnee said, and deserves credit for investing early and heavily in wireless.

But in terms of long-term visions for the industry, Whitacre was not much better than GM’s management, in Schnee’s opinion.

“What happened was that wireless came along and created one of the most amazing growth markets in the world, and therefore bailed out sinking ships like Verizon and AT&T,” Schnee said.

Kresa told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that he picked Whitacre with input from Steven Rattner, chairman of the Treasury Department’s auto task force.

The government, he said, wants to be very involved in picking GM’s board, but after that, does not want to be part of GM’s day-to-day operations.

Whitacre, Kresa said, had experience that was attractive to the government.

Kresa said he has been searching for candidates who have experienced innovation and corporate cultural change and have seen success.

“We are looking at candidates who have been involved in companies where there has been a dramatic change in the marketplace and the way the company has to address the market,” Kresa said. Leadership qualities are above all others, Kresa said.

In Whitacre’s 17 years at the helm of AT&T and its predecessors, he presided over the company’s growth from a regional telephone provider to the nation’s largest provider of wireless, broadband and traditional phone service.

AT&T, formerly known as Southwestern Bell and then SBC Communications, was the smallest of the seven “Baby Bells” spun off in the 1984 government-ordered breakup of the national AT&T monopoly.

A second board will be appointed to run the old GM to wind down its remaining assets, Kresa said.

Under terms of a proposed bankruptcy agreement, the U.S. and Canadian governments will own nearly 75 percent of General Motors, with the U.S. holding a 60 percent controlling stake and Canada with 12.5 percent. The UAW would get a 17.5 percent stake and bondholders would end up with the remaining 10 percent. Existing stockholders would be wiped out.

Kresa also said GM would resume compensating board members at a more normal level. The board has been working for $1 per year since GM began taking government loans last year. He did not specify what a normal level was, but nonemployee board members previously received $200,000 per year, with $140,000 of that deferred in shares of GM common stock.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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