GM CEO jokes about the co's demise

Responding to reports of GM's demise, its CEO joked about the words a man might like to hear at his own funeral.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2006 13:17 IST

Responding to reports suggesting General Motors Corp is heading for the automotive junk heap, its chief executive joked on Friday about the words a man might like to hear from a mourner at his own wake or funeral.

"Look, he's moving," was the punch line, which GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner delivered to laughter in a speech to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

It was a rare moment of levity for Wagoner, who is under enormous pressure to turn around GM after its stunning $8.6 billion net last loss year.

"Despite some speculation to the contrary, we at GM are still moving," Wagoner added. "In fact, we're taking some big steps to get moving fast in the right direction."

Whether GM is moving fast enough, or in all the right directions, is an open question. Analysts say many of its recent belt-tightening measures -- including a dividend cut, a reduction in white-collar benefits and executive pay -- generate relatively paltry cash savings for the ailing automaker.

Wagoner insists his turnaround plan is gaining traction, however. And his upbeat tone on Friday, which came in stark contrast to more dire pronouncements of the recent past, was aimed at countering some of the doom and gloom that has been written about GM lately.

"If all you do is read the headlines, you may not have as constructive a view of the outlook as we believe you could have," said Wagoner, who spoke to reporters after his speech at a hotel on Miami's waterfront.

In his prepared remarks, Wagoner also poked fun at President (George W.) Bush for having suggested, in a recent interview, that GM needs to build vehicles that are "relevant."

"He may not have had a chance to drive our products recently," said Wagoner.

"He (Bush) only buys one car a year or two, I guess, so we've got to sell to everybody else," Wagoner said. "I'm not overly obsessed with it," adding that the president's remarks had been taken slightly out of context.

Speaking of outlooks, Wagoner also said GM was too closely focused on its turnaround and day-to-day operations to offer any concrete financial forecasts for this year.

That may speak to a sense of urgency at GM, as it tries to pull itself up by its automotive bootstraps. But it is also disconcerting for investors in the world's largest automaker, which just cut its annual $2 dividend in half.

"I understand people's desire for guidance but our assignment is to get the business turned around as fast as we can and start getting better results today and tomorrow," Wagoner said.

GM has said it expects to post stronger results this year than in 2005, aided by new models and recent cost-cuts.

But on a cautionary note, Wagoner said he could not rule out more big one-time items in 2006, like the $3.6 billion in after-tax special items that it reported in the fourth quarter.

"I really can't tell you how that will come out. Certainly there were plenty of special items last year and the possibility of them for this year exists as well," he said.

First Published: Feb 18, 2006 11:25 IST