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Fritz Henderson out as GM CEO; Ed Whitacre in (For Now)

The king is dead at General Motors. In a move that shocked Detroit, Fritz Henderson is out as CEO of GM and board chairman Ed Whitacre is taking over as interim CEO (while also retaining his role as chairman).

The decision was evidently taken at GM's board meeting today. The company chose to make it public it immediately instead of keeping it under wraps and presenting it with a new CEO in place as part of an orderly succession. The chaotic announcement, with information scarce, prompted one journalist present at the hastily organized press conference to proclaim, "This is stupid. Why didn't you just issue a press release?"

Whitacre, a Texan who was named GM's chairman in June (after retiring in 2007 as CEO and chairman of AT&T) read a short statement saying that he'd now be in GM's downtown Renaissance Center headquarters "on a daily basis." The board, he said, "agreed that some changes needed to be made going forward. We are united, and commited to the task at hand, and are looking forward to it." He assured dealers, suppliers and unions that daily business at GM would be "normal," though the whole process was anything but.

According to the Wall Street Journal's real-time blog on the unfolding events, "In recent weeks it had become increasingly clear that Fritz Henderson's tenure as GM CEO was in jeopardy as publicly and behind the scenes he and board members seemed to be on opposite pages. Henderson, who joined GM in 1984, became CEO in March; GM emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July. In some ways, Henderson and the board are both relatively new to their current positions. But the board's decision to keep Europe's Opel operation--even as Henderson had pushed for selling it off--was the most poignant sign that directors and CEO were at odds."

Another area of disagreement may have been what to do with Saab. GM says it will evaluate its options at the end of December, and without a viable buyer "an orderly closure of Saab would be pursued."

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