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GM’s Chris Liddell Takes Stock

In the wake of an historic IPO, GM's CFO describes how finance supports the turnaround of this iconic carmaker.
Scott LeibsMarch 1, 2011

Editor’s note: On March 10, after this interview was conducted, General Motors announced that Chris Liddell will leave the company on April 1. He will be succeeded by Daniel Ammann, currently GM’s vice president, finance, and treasurer.

In December, Chris Liddell not only celebrated his one-year anniversary as General Motors’s CFO, but also the company’s stunning initial public offering of the month before, which, among other notable metrics, returned almost $12 billion to the federal government. We caught up with the former Microsoft CFO to ask him about how he has adjusted to life at GM, and what lies ahead.

In his book Overhaul, chronicling the “rescue” of the auto industry, Steven Rattner described you as a “surprise recruit from the tech world” who was “appalled by what he found at GM.” Do you agree with that assessment?

I think that it was probably overly harsh. Inevitably the finance function…is looked at through the lens of the [overall] state of the company, so the fact that it went bankrupt means that everyone inside is looked at in a negative light. That said, the fact that the company did end up in such bad shape was, to some extent, because of the decisions that were made, so it’s a little chicken-and-egg. But there were some very good people here in finance, and part of my focus has been helping to bring them through and helping to rebuild the team.

So you did not overhaul finance, so to speak?

I brought in some new players, but most of my team is existing GM people, and I’m really happy with them. I do think that helping them simplify the way they communicate has made them better at their jobs. That’s part of my role, and also part of my personal philosophy. I talk a lot about the challenge of moving from data to information to insight: data is just a mess of numbers; information puts data into some useful form, like a graph; and insight involves really understanding information so that it can help you make a decision. Most finance functions get caught somewhere near the data end. They’re scorekeepers; they’re putting numbers together without necessarily converting that into information, and they often lack the time to really think about insight. The urgent tends to crowd out the important.

How do you foster that kind of cultural shift?

One of the first things I did was to change the way we communicate with the board, by taking the old board book and converting it into something [more streamlined]. Similarly, we made the information we communicate externally much more digestible and comprehensible to outside investors. You sort of role-model a behavior and people start to [realize] that if it’s acceptable for outside investors and gets very positive feedback, they can take the same approach themselves. I also work with people individually — when they bring me presentations that don’t work, because they’re too lost in the weeds, I coach them on how to present it in a form that will be much more useful.

You did something similar regarding the information that was part of the pre-IPO road show, by taking a 100-page presentation and cutting it way down.

Yes, to 15 pages. That gets back to emphasizing the essence of things so that we give people insight into what we’re doing. Most of the sessions we had were an hour, so the presentation portion was about 15 minutes. That allowed 45 minutes to communicate all the detail that was in those other pages, so it wasn’t like we took that information away. We just didn’t confuse people by it. It’s really about taking the detail and the clutter away from the communication and then making it simple enough that it’s compelling, but also provides an accurate framework. A lot of the people we presented to wanted a huge amount of detail, and that is easier to address when you have a framework for the discussion that is well structured.

You’ve said publicly that GM had been producing “some pretty average cars and trucks.” What role does finance play in helping an automaker improve its overall product portfolio?

It happens at multiple levels. First and foremost you need a business model that you believe will produce better cars. We were producing less-than-world-class vehicles in part because we had a cost-cutting mentality. We would “de-content” cars to save money, but the more we de-contented them the more people didn’t want to buy them.

We are now spending more on cars because we believe we can achieve higher volumes and/or have people willing to pay for that higher content. Finance has a role in creating the framework that allows GM to do [all] that. We also want to run the engineering and capital division in a very steady-state fashion, by having an underleveraged balance sheet that empowers us to spend on engineering in a constant fashion regardless of the point of the economic cycle.

This is where the finance underpinnings of the business model are incredibly important, because if we can break even at the bottom of the cycle, [then we can] spend on engineering strategically versus altering it based on the economic conditions that we find ourselves in. In the past, we’d launch projects in the good times and kill them in the bad, which is a terrible way to run engineering organizations.

Your undergraduate degree is in engineering. Has that proved helpful at all at GM, either in terms of having a better understanding of how cars are designed and built, or being perceived as, on some level, “one of them”?

A little bit, but I wouldn’t overstate it. I think it’s much more useful in a general sense in that engineering is a great discipline for thinking through problem-solving and thinking about issues associated with good analytics and good project management. I don’t think from a credibility point of view it helps a lot, other than to the extent that it makes you better at your job.

Given the enormous task of addressing the finance challenges you’ve just described, have you had a chance to break free and learn the business in a management-by-walking-around sort of way?

I’ve done that as much as possible, because understanding the economics of the business is critical, and one of the best ways to do that is to get out of your office.

I’ve gone to the plants because that’s where you learn about what’s going on in terms of making a vehicle. I also spent a lot of time in my first few months going out and seeing dealers on weekends, spending time with them and just understanding their business and walking the lot. I also had this philosophy when I came in that I was going to drive every car in the portfolio. The tendency, obviously, in senior management, all other things being equal, is to get the best car in the fleet, but I wanted to drive everything, because it increased my understanding of the basic business to go right through the fleet, large to small, good to not-so-good. All of that helped me enormously, relative to just sitting in my office and looking at numbers.

What are you driving these days?

A Cadillac CTS-V wagon, which is a great vehicle. We’re just coming out with it, so I was interested to see how it performed.

Communication seems to be something that you focus on a lot, and it’s something a lot of CFOs have trouble with. Is this a skill that comes easily to you, or have you had to develop it over time?

I think the concept of simplifying complex issues to make them more digestible is probably a skill I’ve always had. In terms of my ability to then communicate that to others, that’s something that I’ve worked on quite a lot.

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