Navigating Troubled Waters

Navy veteran Dan Akerson was charged with steering GM’s ship out of its well-publicized bankruptcy. And he seems to have the company back on course.

It was July 1967, and Detroit was burning. The young United States Naval Academy midshipman, fresh from his first training cruise, was flying into town. As the plane descended over the city, he stared at the flames, smoke, and chaos below. The pilot mumbled something over the intercom about a riot. This was the midshipman’s first-ever glimpse of Detroit. And he was stunned.

He didn’t stay long, and he sure didn’t stay downtown. He left with an unsettling image of a once-great city. He was 19; he didn’t try to make sense of it, he just went on with his life, assuming he never would be in Detroit again.

He assumed incorrectly.

That young man was Dan Akerson, now the chairman and CEO of GM — the man in charge of steering GM from bankruptcy to profitability.

It’s too interesting a parallel to pass up: In 2009, just as he had in 1967, Akerson flew into a Detroit that once again was burning, though the fires this time were financial. He was an out-of-towner who had spent scant time in Detroit since 1967 — and zero time in the car business.

This time, he was to stay a long time — first as a GM board member and then CEO, beginning in September of 2010.

He conducts this mission from an office with a similar view offered from that plane in 1967 — high up, from the 39th floor of the Renaissance Center.

The very structure built as a symbol of hope after the 1967 riots.

So here he sits in 2013, in a city stuck between what people hope for and what they actually have. He could have retired in 2009. He was of age. He certainly had the money, having earned millions at a private equity firm. He had no ties to Detroit — or to the auto industry.

And yet he came anyway, taking on a task few wanted or could begin to handle — and at great risk to a stellar career record.

“He’s risking his reputation, which is extremely important to him,” says longtime friend Bill Conway, co-CEO and co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm in Washington, D.C., where Akerson was working when GM recruited him.

“He didn’t need this,” says Bob Schieffer, co-host of CBS’ Face the Nation and one of Akerson’s good friends. “But the President asked him to do it, and he did it. He did it for patriotic reasons.”

Photographs by Jenny Risher

Akerson doesn’t seek the limelight, but when pressed, he acknowledges his motivation to join GM: “I came on the board because I thought that this is a great American company,” he says. “I’m an unabashed, patriotic American. This company, to me, in so many ways, represents what’s right and what’s gone wrong in America. Could it be fixed? I was told by the [Obama] administration that real business people could run the company, and we would not have government involvement — and we never have,” save for mandated executive pay limits. “So it was the most interesting business situation and paradigm of my generation.”

In other words, it was the ultimate business and leadership challenge — equal to any Akerson had ever faced, and a lot more. “I didn’t think so many things had to be transformed,” he says. “I thought GM would be like GE, where they had this core, really great financial and accounting people.”

Not so, he learned. Not by a long shot.

“I’d do it again,” Akerson says, but he also admits that “there are days, quite frankly, I wonder about that.” He goes back to an inbred sense of duty, wanting “to be part of the transformation of General Motors from a company that really, I thought, was a bit lost, to be a great company once again.”

To what extent Akerson can take credit for what appears to be good results so far — and to what extent these results might continue — is a topic of much conversation. But it’s probably fair to say that it’s unlikely anyone could’ve done much better than he has so far — and a host could’ve done far worse.
That’s as close to consensus as you’ll get in post-bankruptcy GM and in bankrupt Detroit.


Much of Akerson’s path to the RenCen illustrates the quintessential journey of what early immigrants dreamed of for their children and grandchildren.

Akerson was born in Oakland, California, in 1948. Both parents were first-generation Americans. His maternal grandparents were German, his paternal grandparents Swedish. “So at Christmas time,” he says, “we had to eat lutefisk, lefse. My dad would drink glogg, which would [make] a good paint remover.”

None of Akerson’s grandparents would allow anything other than English in their household, he says. “You were going to assimilate.”

Akerson’s two uncles fought at Normandy on D-Day. His father served 21 years in the Navy, took direct hits during World War II, and witnessed the brutal Korean War battle of Inchon. He later worked for Minnesota’s Department of Corrections. “He was old school,” Akerson says. “He was a tough guy.”

At his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party, Akerson reflected on his elders, realizing how proud they must have been of the doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and others who had come out of their families’ early voyages to the New World. This immigrant legacy has clearly marked Akerson.

He and his brother and sister grew up initially in San Diego. They moved to Mankato, Minnesota, at first living in very humble housing that first sensitized Akerson to the plight of the poor. His mother raised her children Catholic — he jokes that he had 10 cousins on the Protestant side of his family and “about 35 on the Catholic side.” Akerson remains devout today, and his faith motivates his considerable philanthropic endeavors (see story at right).

In high school, Akerson played baseball and ran cross-country; he still plays squash several times a week. He still fondly recalls the day he and his father saw Ted Williams hit two home runs. A shortstop and pitcher, Akerson played ball from Little League all the way through college. But when they put him in the outfield, he says, “that’s when I quit. I wasn’t quite as good as I thought I was.” Still passionate about baseball, Akerson contends he already knows more about the Detroit Tigers than many local fans.

After graduating, armed with good grades and a great SAT score, Akerson looked to Stanford because “every kid in Minnesota wants to go to school in California.” But since his brother was studying to be a doctor, his dad said it would take a full-ride scholarship. Akerson opted for family tradition and entered the U.S. Naval Academy, earning an engineering degree in 1970 (and later the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy Distinguished Graduate Award). He also earned a master’s in economics from the London School of Economics in 1978.

Serving on a destroyer during Vietnam, Akerson met his wife, Karin, when he was on leave. The two were married five months later. The couple today has two daughters and a son, plus three grandchildren. The family remains anchored largely in Washington, D.C. Akerson also keeps a residence in Detroit.

After the Navy, Akerson spent several decades in business, mainly at telecommunications and finance firms. He joined MCI early on, when it was a scrappy company competing with AT&T, and became president and COO in 1992-93. Akerson’s time in this and similar companies — Nextel, XO Communications, and General Instrument Corp. among them — formed his core belief that to fall behind in the ever-evolving world of technology and innovation is to fall behind, period. The trick is to know you’re behind, and then know how to change course.

Akerson’s other core competency is in finance, a talent he wielded with the Carlyle Group, which he joined in 2003 at the behest of Conway. The two men met at MCI.

In Washington, he and Karin have been especially involved with the nonprofit charity So Others Might Eat. When they donated money for a community center, Akerson asked it be named for his mother. It’s called Marguerite’s Place.

For all Akerson’s time at the office, family still ranks high among his priorities. “He lights up when he gets to talk about his children and grandchildren,” says Mary Barra, senior vice president for global product development at GM.

Akerson’s other passion is golf. And “know the golfer, know the man” fits here. Akerson is “extremely competitive,” Conway says, and he’s just as competitive in business as in golf. “It’s not the money … He has a handicap of about 10. You could be playing for a peanut. He just hates to lose.”

It was Conway who Akerson consulted when he was asked to be GM’s CEO. “He called me and he said the company was getting ready to go public and … thought they needed a CEO before, during, and after the IPO, and they looked around the board meeting and said, ‘That’s Dan.’

“I don’t think Dan was quite ready for it,” Conway says. “We agreed we would both sleep on it, and the next morning, we both agreed: If he didn’t do the job, he would regret it. And he has a great interest in public service. I think to most readers, it probably sounds corny. They don’t believe people like that exist, but he’s the last of the breed.”


So what exactly has Akerson done since coming to GM’s rescue? And what kind of leader is he? Supporters and critics alike agree that Akerson, through his business and philanthropic efforts, will leave his mark on Detroit.

From a business standpoint, his moves have been quite visible. Shortly after accepting the CEO job, Akerson ordered an extreme makeover of GM headquarters. To him, it reflected an era and a business model that had long since ceased to exist.

And it turned his stomach.

“It was like a mausoleum,” Akerson says. “This floor used to have [only] four offices on it. Everybody had their private bathroom with a private shower.” People weren’t there to take showers, he said at one point.

The makeover was a symbol of Akerson’s larger efforts to change GM’s way of doing business. The place was a culture shock to him — almost as if they were still using typewriters, “only not electric,” he says. As he remarked to The Detroit News in 2011, “I think we lost the competitive gene here. The competition was to get to this office.”

Still, he clearly understands why GM operated as it did for so long. “Just by virtue of being named CEO of General Motors, the largest company in the world for, what, 35, 40 years, just by virtue of them hitting you with the golden sword and dubbing you ‘Sir CEO’ ” deemed you invincible.

As a result, “we failed to innovate for profit,” Akerson says. “We did a lot of R&D, but we didn’t integrate into the company’s core products. We didn’t innovate from a management point of view. It was very inbred.”

Akerson was quick to come in and clean out the executive ranks, which drew criticism, praise, and a lot of in-between.

“If you look at the management team now,” he says, “it’s a good mixture. We have to have that core, long-term constancy and expertise of the industry. This is not an A-to-Z industry you learn in two or three years. It’s more like a decade or more.”

Akerson, who considers himself a straight shooter, thinks it’s critical for General Motors to solicit new ideas, new perspectives, new experiences.

“We were so insular,” he says. “We [wouldn’t] let our senior executives serve on outside boards. I mean, how did this industry react to foreign competition? They said ‘You should buy American because we’re Americans.’ Well, Americans have the right to get the best product they can.”

You don’t win because of guilt, Akerson says. You win in the marketplace.

Akerson’s leadership style might be likened to that of a “servant leader,” someone willing to work with others. “The culture here was very one-dimensional,” he says. “I remember I would get frustrated with people when they wouldn’t engage with me, wouldn’t argue with me, wouldn’t disagree with me.

“We cured that.”

Barra, a 33-year GM veteran, admires Akerson’s integrity. “He’s hard-working and leads by example,” she says. “He has no qualms about rolling up his sleeves and getting involved … and doing high-quality, detailed work — and demonstrating that’s his expectation of others.”

And if you’re going to pitch Akerson a proposal, Barra says, you’d best do your homework.

Akerson sees himself as tough, but fair. He’s also known to be direct. His style is to get the issues on the table and get them addressed.

“He really wants to work together as a team,” Barra adds. For him, teamwork trumps talent.

Much has been made about the fact that Akerson and his peers — Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne — are non-car guys. This seems to prove that auto industry experience may no longer be required in the Big Three’s ivory towers.

Paul A. Eisenstein, publisher of, has covered the auto industry for 30 years. To him, things in the car biz aren’t always what they seem. “Akerson has shown that skills can travel,” he says. “But people in Detroit — and the auto business especially — like to think of themselves as a peculiar entity. The key [for Akerson] is to have the right people in place.”

Eisenstein thinks that when an auto exec knows who to trust and who to surround himself with, then he doesn’t have to be master of all things. “Akerson is smart and shaped by his military, telecom, and financial experience,” he says. “I’m not sure if he truly understands cars, how much he wants to learn or has learned about the car business per se, or how much he’s relying on others upon pain of death. He’s made it clear he expects people to deliver.”

While Mulally is known to put up with minor mistakes at Ford, Eisenstein gets the sense that Akerson doesn’t tolerate mistakes, period.

“He may not describe himself as a car guy,” Barra says, “but he’s a guy who knows cars. One of the key things he’s really driving into the organization is the importance of quality.”

Akerson’s also driving a culture of accountability at GM, creating a vision for the company at its highest level. And Barra likes his approach. “We’re going to win,” she says, “by having the best vehicles.”

Virtually undisputed is that Akerson does the right thing for the right reasons. “He’s going to do the right thing,” Barra says, “whether he’s by himself or in front of … 1,000 people.”

According to UAW President Bob King, the union was worried when Akerson was hired as CEO because he’d spent so much time in private equity. “That concerned us,” King says, “because some in private equity may not be socially responsible.”

But King’s concerns were soon relieved. “Working with him over the last three years, I have a lot of re-spect for him,” King says. “He’s tough, he’s very focused on making sure GM is a success, but he’s honest. He follows through on what he’s said he’s going to do. What works with Dan is that he is straightforward; he’s honest and looks for positive solutions to issues.”

King feels that Akerson has embraced the UAW as a partner, that there’s a transparency between them that benefits both organizations.

“While we don’t always agree,” King says, we look for creative solutions.”

CBS’ Schieffer thinks so highly of Akerson’s character that he believes the next president — Democrat, Republican, or whoever — should draft Akerson as Secretary of Defense. “He doesn’t let politics get in the way,” Schieffer says. “We don’t have moderates in Washington anymore, and people like Dan Akerson who, when the President asks for help, [are] willing to give it.”

Secretary of Defense after GM? Talk about entrenched bureaucracy.

No comment, Akerson says.


Few argue that GM is heading in the right direction. In 2013, GM posted its strongest sales in China for the first half of any year. The Cadillac ATS compact sedan won North American Car of the Year. Overall, vehicle sales are up, and stock prices remain relatively stable. GM’s 2009 bankruptcy restructuring and $49.5 billion U.S. taxpayer bailout left the U.S. Treasury Department with a 60.8 percent stake in GM. The government has been selling shares ever since.

Some argue the jury is still out. Critics point out that many products taking off now were planned and developed prior to Akerson’s reign, and that he has benefited from an improving economy. And no one can get rid of all GM’s bad habits and bureaucracy in a few years, so what happens after he leaves?

While the debate continues, it seems ironic that Akerson came on as GM’s bankruptcy doctor just before the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy this year. Early in his tenure, Akerson had dinner with Mayor Dave Bing. “He said to me, ‘Boy, you have a tough job,’ And I said, ‘You have a much tougher job than I do.’ ”

But even then, Akerson didn’t think the city would necessarily end up in bankruptcy, he says. “I didn’t know enough.”

Just as Akerson has steadfastly defended the GM government-funded bailout, he believes bankruptcy was pretty much the only option left for Detroit — and that it will enable a turnaround, just as it has at GM, although there are major differences between a corporation and a city using this tool.

“I think Detroit is a great American city that — for a variety of reasons that are very complex — fell on hard times,” Akerson says. “But it’s a gritty, comeback city. And we should not give up. You can’t just blame the government here; you’ve got to blame the companies, too — it’s shared responsibility.”

After decades, the auto industry became uncompetitive, which in turn affected Detroit. “Economies are not unlike delicate biospheres,” Akerson says. “There has to be balance.”

And all parties, he says, need to pitch in. He points to business leaders such as Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert as strong corporate partners in the effort to rebuild Detroit.

Akerson says he hasn’t been consulted by city or state leaders for bankruptcy advice. “If asked, I’ll always help. But I’ve got enough to do here right now.”

As he speaks about this and everything he’s encountered since coming to Detroit, Akerson points to a framed quotation that he’s placed in every office he’s ever occupied. It’s from a speech given by President Theodore Roosevelt titled “Citizenship in a Republic.” It has great meaning to Akerson — and could probably help others in the “arena” of fixing what needs fixing while the whole world is watching:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasm, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

See also: Leaving a Philanthropic Footprint and The Akerson Effect