Intense watch on GM's new 'superstar' comes with risks, rewards

The press preview at the Detroit auto show was Mary Barra’s first big-stage event as CEO. She was mobbed.

DETROIT -- For months it seemed clear that the talk of this year's Detroit auto show would be the Ford F-150, whose aluminum-bodied redesign highlights the radical paths automakers are following to meet fuel-economy standards.

But by the time Ford herded a few thousand dealers, suppliers and journalists into the Detroit Red Wings' arena, where five F-150s crashed through a set spanning the length of the ice last Monday morning, it had already been upstaged by the world debut of General Motors' all-new 2014 CEO.

A half-hour before the F-150 introduction, ABC's "Good Morning America" introduced its millions of viewers to Mary Barra, the first woman to lead a major automaker. At a GM event the night before, Barra was mobbed by reporters and photographers, some of whom fell over furniture and banged into a column before security whisked her away after a few minutes.

"You guys have rocketed her to superstar status overnight," Alan Batey, GM's incoming North American president, told reporters later.

Barra's sudden stardom poses a unique opportunity for GM, which is eager to put the era of "Government Motors" in the past and to attract new customers at a time when women influence a majority of car-buying purchases. GM has been inundated with requests to interview Barra from several hundred media outlets, including Good Housekeeping, Marie Claire and Finnish national television (she's part Finnish).

At the same time, allowing too much focus on Barra risks marginalizing her leadership abilities and the vehicles that GM wants to show off.

"What GM does with the attention is going to be key," said Anne Belec, a former global marketing chief for Ford Motor Co. "This is an opportunity to open some doors, to get consideration from various groups and segments and consumers that maybe in the past were not really an option or on the radar screen."

Female car buyers

Mary Jo Wheeler-Schueller, a Chevrolet dealer in northern Wisconsin whose mother has been a GM dealer for 50 years, said she is confident that having a female CEO will help GM attract new customers, just as female ownership has helped her family's business.

"It's ingrained in our culture here that the woman's the buyer, too, so don't just talk to the man," Wheeler-Schueller said. "When a married couple comes in, the salesman gives both of them attention."

Barra's predecessor, Dan Akerson, has said his wife bought her first Toyota years ago after a Chevrolet salesman referred to her as "the little woman." Wheeler-Schueller said her mother, Ann Wheeler, who started Wheelers GM in Marshfield with her husband in 1964 and became the dealer principal in 1987, tried to attend GM meetings early in her career but was not allowed in because she's a woman.

Since Barra's selection as CEO last month, "we've already heard from women customers that say, 'It's about time,'" Wheeler-Schueller said.

But can Barra's rise to the top go beyond being a good story to create the sort of goodwill that has drawn critics of the auto bailout into Ford showrooms for the past five years?

"I think this is going to be somewhat short-lived," said Laura Ries, a marketing consultant and co-founder of the firm Ries & Ries in Atlanta. "It's kind of like Obama -- having a black man in office was such a big deal at first. Today it's kind of a yawner. No one even talks about it anymore."

Media frenzy

Many at GM, and even Barra herself, seem to have been caught somewhat off guard by the frenzy. While driving ABC reporter Rebecca Jarvis around Detroit in a Cadillac CTS, Barra said she expected some media attention because of her gender, but "not nearly what has happened."

Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" focused on Barra briefly during a segment last Thursday about groundbreaking women.

"I think her ascendancy is a statement about a company that's looking forward and not backward or for the status quo," Akerson told reporters at the Automotive News World Congress last week. "I think [GM] may get some benefit, but that's not why she was chosen. She was chosen for her qualifications."

So far GM has turned down most interview requests. In addition to "Good Morning America," Barra appeared on CNBC to talk about a pickup recall and GM winning the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards.

"The important thing is right now is that she is intently focused on getting into the business and running the company," said Greg Martin, a GM spokesman. "It's unusual for such a transition to happen right in the middle of the auto show, and the auto show has its own level of insanity, so that really amplified the level of interest that would normally come with such a historic appointment."

No commercials

Tim Mahoney, Chevrolet's global marketing chief, downplayed the idea of Barra appearing in a commercial, but he left open the possibility that she could be used in some public way to help improve GM's image.

Ford ran only one commercial overtly highlighting the fact it did not take a taxpayer loan; it was pulled off the air quickly amid criticism that Ford, which had supported aid to GM and Chrysler Group, was being hypocritical. In the spot, a customer being interviewed said he "wasn't going to buy another car that was bailed out by our government."

"You have to be careful about not positioning Mary as simply a woman who's made it to the top," said Belec, who left Ford in 2009 after 24 years and is now an executive director with the recruiting firm Russell Reynolds.

"She brings substance and subject-matter expertise," Belec said. "At the end of the day, she needs to be positioned as the best person for this role."

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