GM's new chairman not afraid to make unpopular calls

Tue Feb 11, 2014 12:49pm EST
 
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By Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Co's (GM.N: Quote) new Chairman Theodore "Tim" Solso is not afraid to make edgy and sometimes unpopular decisions, a trait that could come in handy as the No. 1 U.S. automaker seeks to further reinvent itself under new Chief Executive Mary Barra.

The plain-spoken native of the U.S. Pacific Northwest joined the automaker's board in 2012. In his former role as chairman and CEO of diesel engine maker Cummins Inc (CMI.N: Quote), Solso actively embraced tough new federal emissions regulations at a time when some rivals resisted change. He also introduced benefits for gay couples at a company based in a more conservative region of Indiana.

GM declined to make Solso, 66, available for comment, but friends and former co-workers give him high marks for his willingness to try new things in an industry not known for that.

For this reason, many believe that Solso will be a good partner for Barra, 52, who last month became the auto industry's first female CEO at the same time that Solso got his new job. A person familiar with the GM board's thinking, who asked not to be identified, said Solso was selected to add experience to a team of executives that was viewed as more green.

Barra, who meets with Solso weekly, described him as knowledgeable and seasoned. She has vowed to accelerate the restructuring begun under her predecessor, Dan Akerson.

"He's a great person to provide insight," she said last month. "It's clear his role as the nonexecutive chair is to lead the board activities. He's very clear my job is to lead the company, but he's also there to bounce strategy off of."

Other than a brief time in 2009 when the company went through bankruptcy reorganization, the last nonexecutive chairman at GM was in 1995. Former colleagues said Solso knows how he fits in GM's structure.

"He's not going to be a figurehead, but he also understands very well that he's not the CEO and his job is to ensure Mary is a dang good CEO," Joe Loughrey, the former president at Cummins under Solso, said of his friend.   Continued...

 
The General Motors logo is seen outside its headquarters at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan August 25, 2009. REUTERS/Jeff Kowalsky