From Windows to Windshields

Microsoft finance chief Chris Liddell says he loves challenges. He'll get plenty of them in his new job as CFO of General Motors.

He may not be in a frying pan, but he is definitely leaping into a fire. General Motors announced Monday that Chris Liddell, currently CFO of Microsoft, will take over the automaker’s finance reins in 2010. He will replace Ray Young, GM’s finance chief since March 2008.

Liddell, who joined Microsoft as CFO in 2005 and will officially leave on December 31, will also have the title of vice chairman at GM. He will report to chairman and interim CEO Ed Whitacre until the automaker names a permanent replacement for recently departed chief executive Fritz Henderson.

In an interview last year, Liddell told CFO, “I love a challenge.” That’s a good thing, because the 51-year-old executive is joining a sputtering auto giant that emerged from Chapter 11 just five months ago. The new GM isn’t profitable, but it has greatly stanched its losses in recent months. The automaker has stated publicly that it intends in 2010 to begin repaying the $57 billion it borrowed from the federal government, and it plans to launch an initial public offering sometime next year.

Not that Liddell was untested at Microsoft. Its revenues for fiscal 2009 fell from the previous year’s, the first time that has happened since the software company went public in 1986. Microsoft’s products continue to be plagued by mixed reviews, and its 2008 bid to acquire Yahoo! was rebuffed.

Prior to taking the Microsoft job, Liddell was CFO of International Paper Co. and, before that, CEO of Carter Hold Harvey, a New Zealand forestry company. His education is highly unusual for a CFO: he holds an engineering degree from the University of Auckland and a master’s degree in philosophy from Oxford University.

Liddell’s exotic background has served him well, though, he told CFO last year. He said the combination of an engineer’s analytical skills and a philosopher’s creative approach to problem solving has “been incredibly useful to me, certainly at a company like Microsoft, which is innovative and diverse and where very few things happen in a linear fashion.”

Talking about his transition four years ago from a paper company to a software company, Liddell told CFO that the two were not completely dissimilar. They employed about the same number of people, operated in about the same number of countries, and faced many of the same compliance issues. To get his arms around the things that were different, he used a strategy that he’ll probably have to dust off now: “I knew that a change of industry would require me to read a lot on evenings and weekends, talk to lots of internal and external people, including two of our board members who are CFOs, and get a grip on everything from specific accounting issues to broader strategic concerns.”

 

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