DETROIT Feb 11 General Motors Co's new
Chairman Theodore "Tim" Solso is not afraid to make edgy and
sometimes unpopular decisions, a trait that could come in handy
as the No. 1 U.S. automaker seeks to further reinvent itself
under new Chief Executive Mary Barra.
The plain-spoken native of the U.S. Pacific Northwest joined
the automaker's board in 2012. In his former role as chairman
and CEO of diesel engine maker Cummins Inc, Solso
actively embraced tough new federal emissions regulations at a
time when some rivals resisted change. He also introduced
benefits for gay couples at a company based in a more
conservative region of Indiana.
GM declined to make Solso, 66, available for comment, but
friends and former co-workers give him high marks for his
willingness to try new things in an industry not known for that.
For this reason, many believe that Solso will be a good
partner for Barra, 52, who last month became the auto industry's
first female CEO at the same time that Solso got his new job.
A person familiar with the GM board's thinking,
who asked not to be identified, said Solso was selected to add
experience to a team of executives that was viewed as more
Barra, who meets with Solso weekly, described him as
knowledgeable and seasoned. She has vowed to accelerate the
restructuring begun under her predecessor, Dan Akerson.
"He's a great person to provide insight," she said last
month. "It's clear his role as the nonexecutive chair is to lead
the board activities. He's very clear my job is to lead the
company, but he's also there to bounce strategy off of."
Other than a brief time in 2009 when the company went
through bankruptcy reorganization, the last nonexecutive
chairman at GM was in 1995. Former colleagues said Solso knows
how he fits in GM's structure.
"He's not going to be a figurehead, but he also understands
very well that he's not the CEO and his job is to ensure Mary is
a dang good CEO," Joe Loughrey, the former president at Cummins
under Solso, said of his friend.
Many friends and former co-workers believe Solso took the
job because he felt he could help the automaker navigate
challenges he faced at Cummins. He has met with the top 25
executives since he became chairman.
"He believes the challenges that GM faces are really quite
parallel to the challenges Cummins faced when he became CEO in
2000," said Will Miller, a Cummins board member and the son of
legendary Cummins CEO Irwin Miller, whom Solso has described as
a mentor. "That sense of the opportunity to be of service is
what's driving his decision."
While GM has returned to record profit since its $49.5
billion U.S. taxpayer bailout, it is still losing money in
Europe and even former GM Chairman and CEO Akerson said it was
underperforming on profit for a company its size.
Tom Linebarger, Solso's successor at Cummins, said Solso
will help push for strong financial performance at GM. "He set
aggressive goals for people, but he did it in a way that pushed
you," Linebarger said of Solso.
That certainly would make GM investors happy. During Solso's
12-year run as Cummins' CEO, sales nearly tripled to more than
$18 billion and the company's stock price surged to $120 a share
from $4. In 2010, Solso, who grew up in Oregon, was a finalist
for MarketWatch's "CEO of the Decade" award, along with Apple
Inc's Steve Jobs and the top executives at Google Inc
, Amazon.com Inc and Starbucks Corp.
Longbow Securities senior vice president Eli Lustgarten, who
has covered Cummins as an analyst for more than two decades,
recalled meeting Solso for the first time at an analyst dinner
after he was named CEO at Cummins in early 2000. "I recommended
the stock the next day because it was very clear where he wanted
to take the company," Lustgarten said.
One of Solso's first actions as CEO at Cummins was to write
a memo to the entire company making it clear that results
mattered, Loughrey said. In a 2011 commencement speech at DePauw
University in Indiana, Solso's alma mater, he also emphasized
"You at least have a 50-50 chance of surviving if you're
willing to embrace radical change and pursue it," he said,
adding that the graduates should proactively tackle issues
before they become problems.
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
It was that approach that led Solso in 2002 to push Cummins
to support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's tighter
emissions standards, despite serious resistance from the
industry because of a supposedly impossible timeline, Loughrey
"We got way ahead of the curve," he said. "By the time 2006
rolled around, we introduced an engine on the Dodge Ram pickup
truck that met the 2010 standards, which took the industry by
surprise because there were competitors who were saying the 2010
standard was impossible to hit."
Linebarger also described the 2000 introduction of domestic
partner benefits at Cummins, a move that provided coverage for
gay couples and upset some people in conservative Columbus,
Indiana, where Cummins was based. Solso believed it was the
right move for the company and called a meeting to explain his
Solso is described as down-to-earth and just as happy to
work at his ranch in Montana and relax with his dog. The dog is
also named Tim, in his honor, after he and his wife supported a
program that helped female prisoners train service dogs,
according to Brian Casey, president of DePauw University. Tim
the dog failed the program because he was too playful and Solso
Jose Zaglul, president of Earth University, a school in
Costa Rica founded to develop leaders from impoverished students
in Latin America, Caribbean and African countries, recalls
meeting Solso about 10 years ago.
Solso went from funding a scholarship at the school and
advising Zaglul, to joining the board and pushing Cummins to
commit matching funds to the school. The company even sent a top
financial executive to aid in planning the university's survival
during the recession.
"He's not doing it just to have it on his resume that he
works with an institution in Latin America," Zaglul said. "He
does it because he believes in our mission."
Count Solso's predecessor as a fan. "I would say he's a lot
more qualified than I am," Akerson said last month.