Business Leader of the Year 2010: Chris Liddell

By Liam Dann

Chris Liddell has confounded sceptics to make the GM float a resounding success. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Chris Liddell has confounded sceptics to make the GM float a resounding success. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Launching any company on to the stock exchange is a mighty achievement at the best of times. And these aren't the best of times.

It's a juggling act involving the competing expectations of the board, the shareholders, management, investment banks, managed funds, retail investors and a bevy of lawyers and regulators.

Now imagine the scale and complexity required to float United States car giant General Motors (GM).

For starters, add two or three zeros to the usual numbers involved in floats in this part of the world.

At US$23 billion ($30.6 billion), the total raised by GM's initial public offer - which went live on November 17 - makes it the largest in history.

If that didn't add enough pressure, consider the position of GM in American hearts and minds.

Up there with James Dean and Elvis, GM's Cadillac and Chevrolet are icons of 20th century American culture.

You don't drive a Hyundai to the levee to watch the good old boys drinking whisky and rye.

But just 18 months ago General Motors was stuffed. It was bankrupt and written off by critics. Its collapse was seen as the symbolic death of the US car industry, yet another nail in the coffin of American economic might.

That's the point the US Government stepped in - bailing GM out to the tune of US$50 billion in July last year.

It was a controversial and politically risky move by the Obama Administration. Critics argued they were throwing good money after bad, that this was evidence of Big Government socialism.

So adding to the stakes around this float was the responsibility for taxpayer money and, inevitably, intense scrutiny from the White House and US Treasury.

And there in the thick of it all, bringing it all together, has been a bloke from Matamata. The Mt Albert Grammar old boy Chris Liddell - the conductor of the show.

Liddell joined GM in January, jumping ship from US software giant Microsoft where, as chief financial officer, he was earning plaudits for overhauling the accounting systems.

He had just finished the hard work. Leaving to join basket case GM wasn't seen as a step up by industry commentators. Was he a masochist?

"A year ago there were a lot of people who thought I was crazy doing it," says Liddell, speaking from Detroit.

"And at the time it wasn't obvious it was going to be as successful as it has."

It was a big call but Liddell describes himself as an unashamed risk-taker. That description is probably at odds with most people's idea of chief financial officer - typically the "safety first" position in the executive team.

Liddell acknowledges that he has always - since school - worked hard. But hard work will only take you so far.

"Every one of my career steps has had an element of career-based risk."

So what were those steps?

Here's the short version: He was born in Matamata, his family moved to Auckland when he was 8. He went to Mt Albert Grammar. He was a prefect, and dux, and played in the First XV winning an award for best all-round sportsman.

He completed an engineering degree at Auckland University but worked only briefly in that field before heading to Oxford in England to complete a masters in philosophy. Then he embarked on a career in investment banking.

Liddell worked at Credit Suisse First Boston for 10 years, ending up as joint chief executive. He then jumped across to Carter Holt Harvey, first as chief financial officer then as chief executive.

In 2002, he left New Zealand to take up the chief financial officer role before heading to the US to take on the chief financial officer job at Carter Holt's parent company, International Paper.

The big leap in profile came when he was picked as chief financial officer at Microsoft in 2005. He left the technology giant last year.

"I've always been prepared to take big risks with my career. Going from the investment banking world into the corporate world I took a big pay cut, and I was willing to do it for the long-term future of my career.

"I'd progressed to being CEO of Carter Holt Harvey, I had a great life, I was on the board of the Rugby Union, but I was willing to risk that by going to the US and competing on a world stage rather than just a NZ stage.

"Then leaving International Paper to go to Microsoft was another risk, taking on a totally new industry. Again a much tougher environment from MS to GM."

Despite joining GM's management in January, he is the longest serving of its top three executives.

Chief executive Daniel Akerson has been in the job since September and head of global strategy and business development Stephen Girsky joined in March (Akerson and Girsky were directors who took up management roles.)

So Liddell has been working on the float since he arrived.

"It's just a huge volume of work," he says. "You need to form the underwriting group, select all the advisers, get all the legal work done. In our case we put together a revolving credit facility as well, restructured the balance sheet a bit and got all the roadshow documents together. And then had some initial discussions with the Middle East and Asia ... preliminary discussions and then the formal roadshow."

He reels off the points as if it's a recipe.

"Eighty or 90 per cent is the same as you'd do for something smaller. But the investor base you need to attract is much bigger."

For the final push, Liddell led one of the two teams GM had on the road for two weeks delivering 85 presentations between them.

"You've not only got normal convincing of people to do, you must overcome the prejudice of people remembering poor times."

The shares went live on November 17 and the price went up.

Not just up - up by the right amount (about 3.5 per cent on the day). That's important because it means Liddell and his team judged demand accurately.

The rise was enough that those buying in to the float got some upside but not so much that the company could be accused of leaving value on the table and failing to get maximum return for the US taxpayer.

The float has been hailed as an unqualified success for GM. President Barack Obama called a press conference on the day declaring that "one of the toughest tales of the recession had taken a step towards becoming a success story".

In the US this will go down as one of the biggest corporate stories of 2010, and one of the few positive ones. If the wider recovery goes as hoped, the IPO may mark a turning point in US fortunes - an historic moment when corporate America started believing in itself again.

That makes Liddell very much a part of corporate America right now. But he's still a very proud Kiwi.

He says he doesn't feel out of place as a New Zealander at GM. It's a global company and foreign executives are no longer unusual in America. And while he doesn't want to overplay the Kiwi stereotype of the rugged individual, he does feel his background in New Zealand has allowed him to take a more varied career path.

The size of the market in the US means you tend to get a lot more career specialisation, he says.

"A lot of people are experts within a narrow field."

In New Zealand there's still the opportunity to be a bit of a "Jack of all trades" in the corporate sphere.

Liddell has made his mark in the US because he's not afraid to be innovative and to take a proactive role within a company. His experiences as a CEO and a banker have both been crucial to that approach.

"I've tried to extend the role," he says when asked about the accounting focus of the typical CFO.

When he came to GM he wasn't in awe of its problems. "Every problem has a solution," he says.

It's simply a matter of stripping things back to basics. Identifying the real problems is the biggest challenge.

Liddell won't be back in New Zealand for Christmas this year as there is still much to work to be done.

GM is a listed company again and has shareholder expectations to live up to. But he has set aside time to get back in February for the opening of the Rotoroa Island restoration project, in which he has been closely involved.

At the moment his charity work is one of his key links with New Zealand. Liddell has also been chairman of Project Crimson, director of the Rugby Union and has backed a number of scholarship and educational initiatives.

He does plan to come home for good one day. But, at just 52, he believes he has one or two major moves left in his career.

Based on his track record, it is likely that they will be high-powered, challenging and anything but predictable.

Chris Liddell

Age: 52.

Born: Matamata.

Education: Edendale Primary School, Mt Albert Grammar. Bachelor of engineering, Auckland University, master's in philosophy, Oxford University.

Career: Chief financial officer at Microsoft (2005-2009). Senior vice-president and chief financial officer at International Paper (2003-2005). Chief financial officer, chief executive Carter Holt Harvey (1995-2000). Analyst, director and joint-chief executive, CS First Boston (1983-1995).

General Motors

Revenue: US$131b ($174.7b).

Market capitalisation: US$50.6b.

Staff: 209,000.

Brands include: Chevrolet, Cadillac, Daewoo, Holden, Isuzu, Opel, Vauxhall.

- NZ Herald

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