Barra steers a course set by Akerson

Aims to boost momentum, but 'no right or left turns'

Barra: Insight from Solso

DETROIT -- General Motors CEO Mary Barra doesn't seem eager to discuss the glass ceiling that shattered with her elevation to GM's top job this month or whether her appointment can help transform the company's stodgy image.

Instead, Barra used her first in-depth media briefing as CEO last week to underscore her commitment to the path laid out by her predecessor, Dan Akerson.

There will be "no right or left turns" from that course, she said.

She intends to "accelerate" GM's momentum by getting its regional businesses on the same page, maintaining its stout balance sheet and emphasizing brand health over short-term gains in market share.

"We're no longer just looking for viability," she said. "We're looking for growth and leadership in the operations that we have around the globe."

Barra inherits a company that is, by many measures, flourishing after nearly 31/2 years under Akerson, who retired in January -- six months to a year earlier than expected -- to care for his sick wife. Redesigned vehicles such as the Chevrolet Impala and Cadillac CTS, developed in part under Barra's watch when she was global product chief, have won accolades. GM's vehicle quality and customer satisfaction rankings are up. The company has posted 15 straight profitable quarters and recently reinstated a quarterly dividend.

Barra's agenda
In her first in-depth media briefing as CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra highlighted several priorities.

  • Better integrate GM's regional units, which will report to GM President Dan Ammann

  • Achieve breakeven results in Europe and 10% profit margins in North America by “mid-decade”

  • Record “modest” global market share gain in 2014

  • Maintain GM's “fortress balance sheet” of little debt and ample liquidity

  • Continue to focus on brand strength over short-term gains in market share

GM President Dan Ammann will oversee the heads of regions, Chevrolet and Cadillac.

During an hourlong media briefing with a dozen reporters, Barra, 52, explained the thinking behind the new executive setup that GM outlined with her appointment last month.

GM revived the job of president, filled by former CFO Dan Ammann, to serve as the No. 2 to oversee GM's regional presidents and the heads of Chevrolet and Cadillac. Also, Tim Solso, the former CEO of diesel engine maker Cummins Inc., will be the nonexecutive chairman.

Other than a brief period after GM's 2009 bankruptcy, it's the first time in nearly 20 years that GM has split the CEO and chairman roles.

Barra said she was heavily involved in shaping the scope of Ammann's role, which she said will focus on helping GM share best practices among regions and brands. Historically, GM's regional chiefs have operated autonomously, which executives have said created "fiefdoms" that led to inefficiencies and added costs.

"Dan is going to focus very much on the opportunities that we have across the regions and with building the brands," Barra said.

"There's good pockets of things going on," she said. "If we can just make sure there is quick sharing, we think we can strengthen the regions and make sure we manage the brands in a global sense."

Barra added that she communicates regularly with Solso. She said his experience at Cummins, during which he led a dramatic turnaround through innovation and a tighter focus on cost in his 12-year tenure as CEO, makes him "well matched" to offer strategic direction.

"He's a great person to provide insight," she said. "It's clear that his role as a nonexecutive chair is to lead the board activities. He's very clear my job is to lead the company. But he's also there to bounce a strategy off of."

Clarifying the new executive structure was a main focus during a two-day meeting in suburban Detroit last week of GM's top 300 executives from around the world. Barra said she wanted to assure GM's leaders that her new executive team is "perfectly aligned."

Barra, the first woman to head a global automaker, played down her status as a barrier buster and the media frenzy stoked by her appointment. If anything, she said, she is glad that it has sparked some interest among young people in careers in science and engineering.

"My gender doesn't really factor into my thinking as I come into the room," Barra said. "I want to be valued for leading the team and the results we achieve."

You can reach Mike Colias at

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