Restructuring specialist named interim Opel CEO

FRANKFURT Tue Jul 17, 2012 8:13pm IST

An undated handout picture shows Thomas Sedran. REUTERS/GM Company//Handout

An undated handout picture shows Thomas Sedran.

Credit: Reuters/GM Company//Handout

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FRANKFURT (Reuters) - U.S. carmaker General Motors (GM.N) named Thomas Sedran, a restructuring specialist, as interim chief executive of Opel, and said it was to redouble efforts to return the ailing European brand to profitability.

Unlike his predecessor, Karl-Friedrich Stracke, Sedran was not named president of GM Europe as GM vice chairman Stephen Girsky was handed the title, bundling more control at GM's headquarters in Detroit.

"We will continue to implement our business plan as it was outlined and work to improve it," Girsky said in a statement, in a signal Stracke's old plan was not ambitious enough.

In a joint release with the carmaker's unions, Opel labour leader Wolfgang Schaefer-Klug said the new team around Steve Girsky stood for a change that Opel urgently needed.

Opel said Sedran, who joined Opel in April and had been head of operations, business development and corporate strategy, would assume day-to-day responsibility until a permanent choice was in place.

Stracke, an engineer, was sacked last Thursday in a move so abrupt board members were caught off guard.

Fixing Opel, which trades as Vauxhall in Britain, has become a top priority for GM chief executive Dan Akerson, who has demanded an end to more than $3.5 billion in underlying losses racked up after the U.S. parent emerged from bankruptcy in 2009.

Since deciding in November 2009 against the sale of a majority stake in Opel, GM has replaced its European president three times and is planning its second round of restructuring including the closure of a plant in Bochum, Germany.

Reports had said Sedran might be a temporary appointment while the company looked for an external candidate to be CEO.

A labour union source has told Reuters he thought 47-year-old Sedran, who has worked closely with Opel since 2009, has been groomed to lead the company in the months since he joined.

Former CEO Nick Reilly ran the company initially as a stop-gap measure for three weeks before taking over permanently in December 2009.

While Stracke's sacking may appease investors on Wall Street demanding quick results, observers in Germany have criticised the timing as short-sighted.

Sedran's biggest challenge will be rehabilitating Opel's image in Germany where its market share has dwindled to record lows, making the brand more and more dependent on struggling southern European markets such as Italy and Spain.

Whereas Western European new car registrations fell 7 percent in the first half, according auto industry association ACEA, demand for Opels and Vauxhalls tumbled more than 15 percent.

That said, Fiat (FIA.MI), Peugeot (PEUP.PA), Renault (RENA.PA), and Seat (VOWG_p.DE) all delivered worse performances during the period.

One hope is Opel's plan to join efforts with French peer PSA Peugeot Citroen. GM and PSA agreed in February an alliance expected to reap combined synergies of about $2 billion annually within about five years.

Sedran will at least be able to count on fresh models hitting the market in the coming months -- customers can already place orders for the new Mokka subcompact SUV, for example, the first such entry into the segment for a German brand.

There is one drawback. The model, which hits showrooms in October, is being built in Korea and does nothing to help solve the problem of excess plant capacity in Europe.

(Reporting by Christiaan Hetzner; Editing by Erica Billingham and Dan Lalor)

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