July 17, 2012 / 10:24 AM / 6 years ago

Opel set to pick turnaround expert as stopgap CEO

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - General Motors (GM.N) is expected to appoint Thomas Sedran, a former restructuring consultant, as interim chief executive of its ailing European unit Opel at a board meeting later on Tuesday.

An employee of German car manufacturer Opel enters a building at the headquarters of Opel in Ruesselsheim, 20km from Frankfurt May 14, 2012. REUTERS/Alex Domanski

Sedran, who currently heads operations, business development and corporate strategy at Opel, is set to replace Karl-Friedrich Stracke who was sacked last Thursday in a move so abrupt that even board members were caught off guard.

Fixing the General Motors unit, called Vauxhall in the UK, has become a top priority for GM Chief Executive Dan Akerson, who has demanded an end to more than $3.5 billion in underlying losses racked up after the U.S. parent emerged from bankruptcy in 2009.

Since deciding in November of that year against the sale of a majority stake in Opel, GM has replaced its European president three times and is planning its second round of restructuring including the closure of a German manufacturing plant in Bochum.

Media reports have speculated that Sedan may likely be a temporary appointment while the company looks for an external candidate to permanently replace Stracke.

But a labour union source has told Reuters that he thinks 47-year-old Sedran, who has worked closely with Opel since 2009, has been groomed to lead the company ever since he joined in April.

Former CEO Nick Reilly ran the company initially as a stop-gap measure for three weeks before taking over permanently in December 2009.

While Stracke’s sacking may appease investors on Wall Street demanding quick results, observers in Germany have criticized the timing as myopic and some even question whether Opel can ever really recover from the constant turmoil.

Sedran’s biggest challenge will be rehabilitating Opel’s severely damaged brand image in Germany, where its market share has dwindled to record low levels this year, making the brand more and more dependent on struggling southern European markets like Spain and Italy.

Whereas Western European new car registrations fell nearly 7 percent in the first half, according to Tuesday’s data from auto industry association ACEA, demand for Opels and Vauxhalls tumbled by more than 15 percent.

Opel is not alone, however. Rival brands Peugeot (PEUP.PA), Renault (RENA.PA), Seat (VOWG_p.DE) and Fiat FIA.MI all delivered even worse performances during the period.

One hope is Opel’s plan to join efforts with troubled European carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroen. GM and PSA agreed in February on an alliance that is expected to reap combined synergies of about $2 billion annually within about five years.

Opel’s Sedran will at least be able to count on fresh models hitting the market in the coming months.

Customers can already place orders for the brand new Mokka subcompact SUV, for example, the first such entry into the segment for a German brand.

There is one drawback, however: the model, which hits showrooms in October, is built in Korea and does nothing to help solve the problem of excess plant capacity in Europe.

Reporting by Christiaan Hetzner; Editing by Erica Billingham

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