The American public has gotten past its animosity toward General Motors for taking a government bailout in 2009, the company's top executive said Thursday.
Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson said a poll taken last summer for GM by Washington public opinion firm Peter Hart Research Associates shows that more than 70 percent of Americans have a positive opinion of the company. When the same poll was taken in July of 2009, more than 70 percent had a negative opinion, Akerson said.
"I think America loves a competitor. I think General Motors, Chevrolet in particular, is part of Americana," Akerson said during an appearance at the Detroit Economic Club.
In 2009, GM, saddled with high debt and expensive labor costs, needed $49.5 billion in government loans to survive a trip through bankruptcy court.
The U.S. government got a stake in the restructured company, part of which was sold in an initial public stock offering about one year ago on Nov. 18, 2010. The government's remaining 500 million shares would have to sell for around $53 per share for the U.S. to break even. Such a sale probably won't come anytime soon. GM shares are trading around one-third less than the $33 IPO price.
The summer before the IPO, then-GM Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre said government ownership was hurting the company's sales. Whitacre said GM didn't want to be known as "Government Motors."
But Akerson said on Thursday that the new GM is now making money and has passed that stage.
"I do think that we've kind of gotten over that," he said.
GM made a net profit of just over $7.1 billion in the first nine months of the year.
Akerson said the government doesn't get involved in running GM. But he's concerned about government pay limits for companies that took bailout money. GM, he said, won't be able to give bonuses to its 25 highest-paid executives _ even though it could make $8 billion or $9 billion this year.
"We've got some very, very good people that could do well at other companies who are doing this one for the home team," he said.
Akerson pinned the drop in GM's stock price on the broader economy, not automaker's performance. Shares of General Motors Co. were down 96 cents, or 4.2 percent, to $21.69 in afternoon trading Thursday. They're down about 41 percent for the year, slightly worse than the 40 percent drop in shares of Ford Motor Co.
Akerson also said GM will take actions to right its money-losing European operations. He referred to French competitor Peugeot Citroen SA's plan cut 6,000 jobs because of flat demand in Europe, although he stopped short of saying there would be plant closures or layoffs at GM.
He said the government debt crisis in Europe could have a larger impact on the U.S. than the 2008 financial meltdown and recession, because Europe is "a hugely and important cultural and economic center of gravity for the world."
Last week GM said its third-quarter net income fell 15 percent from a year earlier to $1.7 billion, partly because of a pretax loss of $292 million in Europe. The loss forced GM to back off an earlier forecast of breaking even in Europe this year.
"Clearly you can't have a unit as important as Opel is to General Motors chronically unprofitable," he said. "It's not sustainable and it's not good for the company."