How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

The new boss at Old GM

June 1, 2009: 2:41 PM ET

by Patricia Sellers

al_koch_gm.blogYou might call Al Koch the world's biggest trash collector. As bankrupt General Motors (GM) splits into two parts -- New GM, containing Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, and GMC, and Old GM, containing designated bad assets such as Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, Saab -- Koch is the hired gun who's supposed to create value from that latter lot.

Bringing "New GM" out of bankruptcy will be difficult enough. Why would anyone take the tougher slog at "Old GM"?

This is what Koch does -- the toughest turnarounds. He's vice chairman at restructuring consultancy AlixPartners, which works on saving sick comapnies globally but has been a Detroit mainstay for decades. AlixPartners' clients have included DeLorean's creditors in 1984, Detroit (the city itself) in 1994, and Kmart in 2002.

Koch, now 67 and a 14-year veteran of the firm, has served as interim CEO of crippled companies such as video-game distributor Handleman (HDLM) and manufactured-home builder Champion Enterprises (CHB). But his most memorable job was at Kmart in 2002. Kmart was the largest retail restructuring in history and, as it turned out, one of AlixPartner's big successes.

As Kmart's interim CFO through its bankruptcy, Koch got lucky. When I interviewed him in late 2005 for a story about investor Eddie Lampert, he said that he and his restructuring-expert colleagues had never heard of this young investor who had swooped in and bought Kmart bonds at 40 cents on the dollar. "To most people, Kmart looked like a pile of trash," Koch said. "We were told that this hedge fund guy had bought a huge portion of Kmart and wanted to get it out of bankruptcy fast."

Lampert pressed Koch and the other restructuring pros, who were earning $10-20 million a month during Kmart's bankruptcy, to exit Chapter 11 quickly. Lampert argued that neither customers nor management talent would be attracted to a bankrupt Kmart. The company emerged from bankruptcy in May 2003, a year ahead of schedule. Lampert, who had invested some $800 million for a 54% ownership stake, merged Kmart with Sears two years later to form Sears Holdings (SHLD).

Old GM won't be as smooth or as quick as Kmart was. As my colleague Alex Taylor notes, "new GM" will have an incentive -- from the U.S. government, new owner of a 60% stake --  to exit Chapter 11 rapidly, possibly in 60 to 90 days. The Old GM restructuring, meanwhile, could take years.

As Old GM's chief restructuring officer, Koch will be negotating separation agreements with New GM and commandeering efforts to unload or liquidate those dud brands such as Saturn and Hummer.

His influence could turn out to be broader than his marching orders designate. After all, he's worked with GM several times over the years. These past few months, he's helped negotiate the sale of New GM assets to the government. Now he's reporting to CEO Fritz Henderson and to GM's board as well. As a guy who lives and dies by finding value in junk, Koch surely won't take his shot at making history lightly.

Fortune's Most Powerful Women
Fortune's Most Powerful Women For the latest on the most influential women in business, philanthropy, government, and the arts, like us on Facebook.
Guest Posts
Fortune Most Powerful Women Fortune Most Powerful Women The rolodex that redefined power
Profile in The Washington Post
Sheryl Sandberg: Sheryl Sandberg: Don't leave before you leave
COO of Facebook
Wendy Clark Wendy Clark Exec learns firsthand how the homeless live
SVP of the Global Sparkling Brand Center at Coca-Cola
Marissa Mayer's 3 biggest decisions as Yahoo CEO With company stock up over 100% since she began running the company 16 months ago, Mayer reflects on her choices to date. Watch
Chelsea Clinton on running for office: 'I don't know' The vice chairman of the Clinton Foundation talks about her diverse career path and growing up in the spotlight. Watch
MPWomen go Global

The Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership brings rising-star women from countries around the world to the U.S. for three-week mentorships with participants of the annual Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit - among them Ursula Burns of Xerox, Laura Lang of Time Inc., Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, and Tory Burch.

Read more

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by VIP.