"An Exciting Day" for GM, But a Steep Road Ahead

Last Updated Jul 10, 2009 1:58 PM EDT

There was a palpable sense of relief in Detroit as General Motors bid goodbye to its brief and incredibly awkward period in bankruptcy. But giants fall hard, and there's an extremely steep road ahead.

GM's remaining desirable assets--including Chevrolet, Cadillac and GMC--have been passed on to the federal entity now known by the generic name Vehicle Acquisition Company (VAC).

VAC, to be renamed "General Motors" in due course, will remain a largely government-owned entity for the foreseeable future--61 percent is in Obama Administration hands, with the Canadian government, a health-care unit of the United Auto Workers and the Canadian government owning the rest. Gone are Saturn, Hummer and Pontiac (and Buick is a question mark). Saab will be sold. But on Friday the focus was on a bright new future.

"This is an exciting day for General Motors," said CEO Fritz Henderson, "one that will allow every employee, including me, to get back to the business of designing, building and selling great cars and trucks and serving the needs of our customers."

Henderson added, "We'll work hard to repay the trust, and the money, that so many have invested in GM." He said the company hopes to repay $6.7 billion in government loans by 2015, but the full bill through this year is $50 billion. Although GM appears to have a hit in its new Camaro (9,300 were sold in June), that car is running on retro appeal. A reborn GM will need products that look to the future. To that end, it's not a particularly encouraging sign that GM will bring back Robert Lutz as vice chairman. Isn't "Mr. Horsepower" a symbol of where the company was, not where it's going?

GM is closing 14 plants and almost 2,000 dealerships. It's laying off 20,000 people. It's stock won't even be traded until next year at the earliest. The company has lost $88 billion since 2005, and $16.8 billion just in 2008.

Henderson says customers will be GM's new focus. "If we don't get this right, nothing else is going to work," he said. "Most people would say our culture to this point has been an impediment, and I agree with that."

The first signs of life? Henderson says the company is partnering with eBay so California consumers can bid on cars online (or buy them at a predetermined price). "We'll be testing this and other ideas with our dealers over the next few weeks and hope to expand and build upon them in the coming months," he said. Later this summer, he added, GM will be announcing new battery technology for EVs and plug-in hybrids.