Whitacre Hints at Full-Court Press to Convince Consumers of ‘New GM’

In addition to product introductions, Whitacre met with Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

DETROIT – General Motors Co. Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre suggests the rebuilt auto maker will make an all-out marketing bid to convince consumers it is a different car company after bankruptcy, and calls the North American International Auto Show here a bigger event then he anticipated.

Asked about details behind GM’s strategy to communicate its remake to consumers, Whitacre tells Ward’s, “Through marketing, through advertising, through employees, through dealers, through suppliers…every way we can.

“We’ve got to let the consumer know this is a new GM, with new products, and they really are world class. We’re there. We’ve just got a lot work to do” convincing consumers, Whitacre says.

He also suggests the phrase “new GM,” which he often falls back on to describe the auto maker, could be part of a new marketing campaign. “It might,” he says.

Whitacre, who took over as chairman of GM after the auto maker exited bankruptcy in July and added the CEO title on an interim basis last month after Fritz Henderson abruptly resigned, also says he is impressed by his first Detroit auto show.

In his last executive role as boss of telecommunications giant AT&T Inc., Whitacre admits he rarely saw events of such scale and scrutiny.

“It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be. There’s a lot going on,” he tells Ward’s.

In addition to product introductions, Whitacre met with Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The plain-spoken Texan says the meeting was productive.

“It went good,” he says. “I enjoyed it. We talked about cars, the economy, the (Chevy) Volt, electricity…we talked a lot about things.”

The topic of repaying taxpayer loans also came up, Whitacre says. GM plans to repay $6.7 billion in loans at the end of June. The remainder of the $50 billion worth of support will be repaid as the government cashes out its shares of GM sometime after the auto maker goes public again.

“We did talk about repayment, but I’ve already said it will come in June or July,” he says. “We’ll polish that off in June or July. I told (Pelosi) I thought they made a good investment and it would pay off for them.”

Talk of executive compensation did not come up at the meeting, he says. The government made an exemption to its compensation cap for companies bailed out with taxpayer loans so GM could land Chris Liddell as its new chief financial officer from Microsoft Corp.

It is expected GM will need the same loophole to get the CEO it wants.

In the meantime, Whitacre says he is enjoying the job while the search continues, but he has no list of names. “We have a board meeting this week, though,” he says, suggesting the topic may be discussed.

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