After tripling General Motors’ Asian profits in the first three months of this year, Fritz Henderson might have expected a promotion, but as he sat in the lobby of the headquarters of Opel in Germany last Friday and explained his new job running the European business to the Financial Times (FT), he must have wondered whether he had moved up or down, the paper suggested.

The FT noted that, as president of GM Asia Pacific, Henderson oversaw the rapid expansion of the American car company in fast-growing China, one of the most successful parts of the company’s operations, while, as chairman of GM Europe, he now oversees Opel, Britain’s Vauxhall and Sweden’s Saab, all loss-making for several years, and facing fierce price competition.

Just four days before his first public appearance in the job, the group warned that Europe was again behind target and would not return to profit this year. Sales in Germany, Europe’s biggest market, keep falling, the FT added.

But Henderson reportedly tries to look on the bright side. “It is not all gloom and doom,” he told the FT. “It is just different.”

But the paper said there is not a lot of good news. Apart from the new Astra small family car, which is selling well, the talk is of costs being too high and sales behind target.

Expectations of him reportedly are high in the European organisation, where he is talked about as the heir apparent to Rick Wagoner, GM’s 51-year-old chairman and chief executive – he is also under pressure from the group’s Detroit headquarters, which needs Europe to stop losing money.

The Financial Times said Henderson inherits a new management structure put in place by Bob Lutz, the group vice-chairman who has been standing in as head of the European business – this strips power over manufacturing and product development from the three brands and centralises it in Henderson’s Zurich office, in theory making it easier to push through component-sharing and production efficiencies.

According to the FT, Henderson already knows what is wrong with the motor of his business: he lists his biggest problems as rebuilding the reputations of Opel and Vauxhall, and cutting costs.

He reportedly refuses to say whether addressing these problems will involve job cuts or closing factories, which are running at about 88% of capacity – either would be politically sensitive in Germany and Sweden.

But if he can pull off a turnround in Europe it would certainly help Henderson towards a senior post in Detroit, the FT noted.

According to the report, his career already looks remarkably like that of Wagoner, who is five years his senior: both started out in the New York treasurer’s office; both worked for the Sao Paulo-based Brazilian operation; and both had a spell in Zurich.

But, the Financial Times cautioned,  it seems premature to talk of succeeding Wagoner; not only has he shown no desire to leave, but Henderson has never worked in the crucial North American business, where GM has most of its capital invested.