GM picks Microsoft’s Liddell as finance chief

General Motors on Monday named Chris Liddell, Microsoft’s former chief financial officer, as its finance chief and a vice chairman.

The Detroit carmaker’s former chief executive, Fritz Henderson, was widely criticised for not revamping the company’s senior management ranks with more outside talent during his eight months at the helm. The search for a replacement for Mr Henderson , who was forced to resign earlier this month, is also widely expected to result in an appointment from outside, although Ed Whitacre, the company’s chairman and chief executive, said last week that candidates from inside the company would also be considered.

Mr Liddell’s move from cash-rich Microsoft to the struggling carmaker will entail one of the biggest financial contrasts in American business. While at the software company, he has been closely associated with the company’s move to return more of its cash to shareholders, paying out more than $85bn in share buy-backs and dividends in his time at the company – a sharp contrast to loss-making GM.

However, Mr Liddell was also credited with bringing much greater financial discipline and cost control after joining Microsoft in May 2005, in what was also an unusual outside hire for that company. Spurred on by the maturing of its core operating system business and the recession, Mr Liddell pushed through the first company-wide job cuts in Microsoft’s 34-year history. Before joining the software company he was chief financial officer at International Paper, the world’s largest forest products company.

A phlegmatic New Zealander with a low-key style, Mr Liddell was nonetheless credited with forging a close partnership with the ebullient and expansive Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive.

Mr Liddell, aged 51, “brings a depth and experience to this job that were unmatched in our search for a new financial leader,” said Ed Whitacre, GM’s chairman and interim chief executive said. Steve Rattner, former head of the US government’s auto industry task force, sharply criticised GM’s financial management in a recent piece for Fortune magazine.

Mr Liddell has an engineering degree from the University of Auckland, and later graduated from Oxford University. He is a former director of the New Zealand Rugby Union.

GM’s former CFO, Ray Young, has been reassigned to a senior position in the carmaker’s international operations.

Mr Liddell announced his departure from Microsoft last month and is due to leave at the end of the year.

Mr Whitacre said that besides heading GM’s global financial operations, “we’re also looking to [Mr Liddell’s] experience ... as a member of the senior leadership team in helping our restructuring efforts.”

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