By Bill Trott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Dan Akerson, who will step down as General Motors Co's chief executive next month, on Monday defended his tenure leading the No. 1 U.S. automaker and said his successor will have to build on the turnaround that he guided.
In one of his final appearances as CEO, Akerson celebrated the exit last week of the U.S. Treasury as a shareholder more than four years after the automaker's bankruptcy restructuring and $49.5 billion federal bailout. He also told reporters that the depressed European auto market is now "starting to show life."
But the 39-day "quick rinse" bankruptcy only allowed GM to fix its balance sheet and the company is still in the "early chapters" of its comeback story, he said, adding that his successor, product development chief Mary Barra, will not have an easy job continuing GM's success.
"We had to remedy decades of poor decisions and indecisions and 'no decisions' that started to pile up in the 1970s and '80s like so much rotting firewood," Akerson said in prepared remarks at the National Press Club in Washington. "We have been fixing the plane while it's in the air."
GM said last week that Akerson will step down in January and be succeeded by Barra, the auto industry's first woman CEO.
Akerson assumed control of GM shortly before its autumn 2010 reintroduction as a public company and steered GM's return to profitability following the bailout. The U.S. Treasury initially inherited a 60.8 percent stake in GM, which critics of the bailout dubbed "Government Motors."
GM at the time faced out-of-control costs, wasteful complexity and diminished quality, and had lost sight of its customers, Akerson said. His goal was to restore the company's reputation, transform operations and put the customer as the focus in every decision made.
"The end of the 'Government Motors' era has cleared the runway," Akerson said.
He said GM may run advertisements thanking Americans for the bailout, but such a campaign was not likely to run during the Super Bowl.
TWEAKING FORD, TESLA
Akerson also took subtle swipes at rivals Tesla Motors Inc and Ford Motor Co as well as former GM executives whose failure to make tough decisions pushed GM to take a bailout in 2009.
During a question-and-answer session, Akerson said Ford was still repaying its federal "green" technology loan, meaning Ford's obligation to the government exceeds that of GM.
Akerson was asked about fire concerns that have recently arisen over Tesla electric cars and responded by telling how GM handled a situation with its Volt plug-in hybrid. He said GM conducted extensive tests on Volts, offered to buy them back, provide replacements during testing and then made improvements.
"The fact is that we handled it so much differently than other car companies," he said. "I have no comment about what ... Tesla should do."
GM on Monday announced it would invest $1.3 billion in five U.S. plants and Akerson said the company would continue such investments.
Last week GM said it would discontinue its Chevrolet brand in Europe, which Akerson said would boost GM's Opel branch.
"Opel is doing a lot better than it was even six months or a year ago," he said. "I think the European market is starting to show life. It's episodic by country. Some are doing better than others but we made a commitment that we're going to be in Europe and Opel's going to be our brand."
(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; editing by Maureen Bavdek and Matthew Lewis)