'I'm the Guy to Run GM'

Over dinner in Detroit last Friday night, General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner and Renault-Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn discussed concocting a car colossus that would control one quarter of the world's auto sales. But for Wagoner, the dinner was a blind date. Last month GM's largest shareholder, 89-year-old Las Vegas billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, broadsided the GM boss with a proposal for the three-way auto alliance. Impatient with Wagoner's efforts to turn around GM, Kerkorian and his adviser, GM director Jerry York, met secretly with Ghosn (rhymes with phone) for six weeks before going public with the idea June 30. Many believe Kerkorian is trying to shove Wagoner out of the driver's seat and install Ghosn, an automotive superstar revered for bringing Nissan back from the grave. Before the Friday meeting, Ghosn insisted: "I'm not interested in his job." That's fine by Wagoner, who is not ready to give it up. He's moving to take control of the situation by being GM's point man in the talks, which he and Ghosn say will take about 90 days. Two days before dining with Ghosn, Wagoner sat down with NEWSWEEK's Keith Naughton to defend the fix-it job he's doing at GM. Excerpts:

We're executing the turnaround plan at a pace that's faster than we thought we could.

Yeah, I feel like I get good support from the board.

I haven't asked him for his support, to be perfectly honest.

No. No one has expressed dissatisfaction with me. And if one steps back and looks at the facts, the pace of the turnaround is exceptionally fast, I think faster than anybody would have thought would be possible. I've come up with a plan that initially cut $5 billion in structural costs, and then $6 billion, and then $7 billion, then $8 billion and now more than $8 billion in the span of one year. I think that's a rather remarkable accomplishment.

My thought was, "Gee, this is a very interesting idea and a very unusual way to pursue it. And certainly not in line with the way these kind of matters would normally be pursued by a company and its board." But I said, "OK, thanks for the idea. I'll pick up on it."

[ Pause ] Ummm. To be perfectly honest, I don't remember exactly what I said. But I learned long ago that one shouldn't take things personally. You know I'm here to do a job for General Motors and our constituents and our shareholders, and my first thought is, "OK, so is this a good idea for GM?"

There's been so much speculation on [how] somebody else could do this job better. And I remain convinced that that's not true.

I don't have any problems with Carlos, but I'm quite sure that I'm the right guy to run GM.

First of all, when do you put a competitor on your board? I've never heard of that happening.

A lot of aspects of all of this haven't been normal. It's not the way I would have done it.

You know, when you're running a business with 300,000 people, it might be fun to occasionally be emotional. And I might even do that. But people are looking for someone who's thought through what we're going to do, has a clear direction. [Someone who is] able to deal with crises that arise, calls from directors offering unexpected things in a competent, fast and thoughtful way, but in a steady way. They don't like to see someone hopping around left and right, going "The sky is falling." People aren't looking for panic. So why would I change that style? I think it's exactly why we've been able to do remarkable stuff here in the span of a year. Why would anybody want to change that? That's the craziest thing I've ever heard.