Frederick "Fritz" Henderson will not have the luxury of a honeymoon phase. The new interim CEO of General Motors whose predecessor, Rick Wagoner, resigned March 29 at the behest of the White House inherits a company in disarray. Over the next 60 days, Henderson must engineering some kind of comeback for the sputtering carmaker, amid the glare of the media spotlight and mounting public outrage over disappearing auto jobs. (Read "Will Wagoner's Exit Put GM on the Road to Recovery?")
Henderson's own history will be both an asset and a liability in his new post. A company lifer, he has presided over GM's growth in regions around the world, earning accolades as a talented, tough and steady leader. But as a consummate insider who formerly served as President and COO, he must also shake the public perception that feckless leadership has played a large part in GM's slide toward insolvency. Henderson is known for keeping his cool in tough spots, but there are few hotter seats in the business world than the one he's just landed in. (See pictures of General Motors plants.)
Henderson, a 50-year-old Detroit native, earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in 1980. A decorated student (he earned high distinction studying business administration), Henderson was also a talented athlete, though he posted an unsightly 5.91 ERA pitching for the Wolverines' baseball team as a senior. (He has since cited his biggest regret as not possessing "a 97-mile-per-hour fastball.")
After graduating, he earned the highest score in the state of Michigan on the 1980 CPA examination, and spent a stint as a Detroit-based accountant before attending Harvard Business School, from which he graduated in 1984.
That year, he joined GM as a senior analyst in the company's New York-based Treasurer's Office. After a series of rapid promotions through the company's ranks, he became a GMAC vice president in 1992 and was appointed a GM vice president and general manager of steering company Delphi Saginaw in 1996.
The following year, Henderson lit out for Brazil, where he took the reins of GM's operations in that country as well as Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. He has cited the promotion as his "big break." It also opened the door for futher international assignments, including stints overseeing GM operations in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Europe. According to a 2008 New York Times article, he has visited at least 45 countries as part of his duties for GM.
In 2006, Henderson became GM's chief financial officer, and in March 2008 ascended to president and chief operating officer a promotion that left him as Waggoner's heir apparent.
"Analytical, realistic and in a hurry."
John Casesa, managing partner of the Casesa Shapiro Group consulting firm. (New York Times, March 28, 2008)
"A tough and talented executive but indubitably an insider. I suspect he may have damaged his long-term chances by pinning his colors so firmly to Mr. Wagoner's mast during the drawing up of the GM restructuring plan...I would give him a 50-50 chance, which is not bad given the odds on GM as a whole."
John Gapper, writing on his Financial Times blog about Henderson's promotion, March 30, 2009
"When you see a guy with talent, you give him a difficult assignment."
John Smith, retired GM chairman, on entrusting GM's foreign operations to Henderson. (Businessweek, Nov. 15, 2004)
"Get challenged, because that's where you learn. Just like in sports, you become much better when you play tougher competition."
Speaking to a group of students at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. (The Monroe Street Journal, Feb. 2008
"What I like to do is just hit the road. There's no substitute for putting your eyeballs on the business."
On his management style. (New York Times, March 28, 2008)
"I've gotten angry at work maybe three or four times at most."
On keeping an even temper. (Automotive News, Apr. 9, 2007)
"I hate business books. I read male trash like Robert Ludlum and Clive Cussler."
On his reading habits. (BusinessWeek, Nov. 15, 2004)
"Never quit and never declare victory too soon. And don't try to kid yourself."
On his guiding philosophy. (Automotive News, Apr. 9, 2007)