Barra: Disciplined and determined to change GM’s ways

GM CEO Dan Akerson once said of GM product boss Mary Barra: "Why the hell were you in HR?"
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DETROIT -- General Motors’ next CEO is both a product of the company’s bureaucratic, hidebound culture, and a crusader against it.

Early in her tenure as GM’s product chief, Mary Barra concluded that the company needed a new family of global, more fuel-efficient engines. And she figured GM would need a lot of them -- around 2 million units.

In the past, GM leaders would green-light such a large engine program in dribs and drabs, approving a few hundred thousand at a time based on carefully crafted demand projections. Barra successfully pressed for an upfront approval of all 2 million units, accelerating the program by more than a year.

“Too often in the past, we would waste time and energy by doing business with ourselves,” Barra told Automotive News early this year. “My style is to have a rigorous debate before we start on something: ‘Is it in or is it out? What are the most important products to invest in?’ And then we just go.”

Barra, a 51-year-old mother of two teenagers, will replace Dan Akerson, who said today that he moved ahead his retirement by at least six months after his wife was diagnosed with an advanced-stage cancer. Barra’s promotion was part of a broader shuffling of GM’s top ranks.

Akerson surprised industry insiders in early 2011 when he named Barra, then a little-known human resources executive, to run the 29,000-employee, $15 billion enterprise that creates GM’s cars and trucks.

Discipline-driven management

Since then, insiders say, Barra has led GM’s product-development system with an inclusive, discipline-driven management style that is the antithesis of the bigger-than-life personality of the man who had her job for most of the previous decade, Bob Lutz.

Still, she has put her stamp on the enterprise. Barra overhauled the organizational structure that GM has used on its vehicle-development programs since 1996, leaving one lead engineer with accountability for each program.

She also has accelerated the development process by cutting off costly, late-in-the-game tweaks to vehicles under development. And she has continued a consolidation of GM’s global vehicle platforms.

'Calm, poised, polite, smooth'

In an interview with Automotive News today, Lutz said Barra came to the job with more expertise than she was given credit for. He said she helped standardize manufacturing processes and equipment at GM’s plants worldwide while she was head of global manufacturing-engineering during much of his tenure, from 2001 to 2009.

“She was the key implementer of the global manufacturing strategy,” said Lutz. “That was a major achievement and saved a lot of money.”

Barra’s management approach is “calm, poised, polite, smooth,” Lutz said. “But you always get this sense that, behind the pleasant smile and the nice talk, there is a steely, iron determination to push things in the right direction. A leader has to have that.”

In a conference call with reporters, Akerson called Barra “eminently qualified,” personable and highly regarded throughout the company.

“She grew up in the company, worked on the factory floor, managed plants and then managed the largest, most complex segment of our business, global product development,” Akerson said. She “brought order and started to fundamentally transform” GM’s product development process, he said.

She inherits big challenges, says Maryann Keller, a longtime automotive consultant in Stamford, Conn. Despite the progress that GM has made since its 2009 bankruptcy to operate more efficiently, it still trails Volkswagen AG, Toyota and Ford in the shift to global vehicle platforms, which cut costs and boost profits by allowing more vehicles to be built from a smaller number of common parts and modules.

“GM has to continue to make the kind of internal changes that yield greater efficiency,” Keller said. “She has the knowledge of having seen GM as it atrophied. “Hopefully she can apply those learnings and move the company forward.”

Daughter of an autoworker

Barra grew up in suburban Detroit, where her father worked as a die maker at GM’s Pontiac Division for nearly 40 years. She has recalled as a kid climbing over every inch of the interiors of Pontiacs he would bring home and park in the family driveway.

After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Kettering University, Barra landed an engineering job at the plant that produced the Pontiac Fiero.

The CEO post won’t be her first time in the executive suite: In the late 1990s, she worked as executive assistant to CEO Jack Smith and Vice Chairman Harry Pearce. She later was assigned to an internal communications post to manage the fallout from a crippling two-month UAW strike in 1998.

In a video posted on GM’s Web site of an employee gathering today to announce her appointment, Barra called the executive changes “the next chapter in GM’s recovery and turnaround.”

“I truly believe this is the best auto company on the planet,” she said. “We will make sure that we continue the momentum and even pick up the pace.”

You can reach Mike Colias at mcolias@crain.com.


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