JASON STEIN

CEO Barra's defining first chapter

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Jason Stein is the publisher and editor of Automotive News.
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When they write the book on Mary Barra's career at General Motors, the first chapter will be a real page-turner.

Few CEO starts have been as dramatic as Barra's.

There was the announcement of a highly profitable 2013, the glow from GM's twin win on car- and truck-of-the-year honors, and headlines touting another corner turned on Government Motors and the same-old GM.

There was the crush of the Detroit auto show, where journalists from 39 states (plus some from Finland eager to discuss Barra's Finnish roots) and dyed-in-the-wool auto publications such as Good Housekeeping roughed one another up trying to get a quote from GM's new star.

And then along came a deadly ignition switch.

Amid the specter of lawsuits and regulatory headaches over the delayed recall of 1.6 million vehicles globally, Barra now finds herself in the center of another circus.

But instead of touting a new GMC Canyon on her home turf, she'll be facing questions and cameras on Capitol Hill next week, trying to sustain the company's fragile comeback while addressing charges that GM failed for more than a decade to address a problem at the cost of at least a dozen lives.

At first it wasn't clear who would be the public face of GM's crisis-control effort. Would it be North American boss Alan Batey, who wrote a USA Today column in late February saying GM is "deeply sorry"? Might it be Anton Valukas, the outside lawyer hired in March to lead an internal probe of what went wrong? Or would it be Barra herself, who on March 4 said she would lead the response ... and then kept quiet publicly as Congress announced it was launching inquiries and news reports surfaced about a Justice Department investigation?

That all changed last week, when Barra:

-- Announced three unrelated global recalls of 1.8 million vehicles globally to underscore "the focus we're putting on the safety and peace of mind of our customers" while releasing an internal video confessing "something went wrong with our process ... and terrible things happened."

-- Met the press for the first time since the recall (albeit a small group of Detroit journalists without cameras).

-- Wrote an opinion piece published in USA Today in which she touted GM's newly appointed and first-ever vice president of safety, Jeff Boyer, as a "safety zealot."

When disastrous news hits, some CEOs recoil; others step out and lead.

Any questions about whether Barra's reputation for being a quiet, behind-the-scenes dynamo would keep her out of the spotlight have been answered.

The recall has forced her hand.

As she has suggested she will, Barra needs to show convincingly that her company is reviewing every quality lapse -- no matter how small -- and going the extra mile to fix it. She needs to build trust and show that GM is being more serious than ever about tackling problems. She needs to find out why a recall wasn't ordered earlier and who is responsible. She needs to demand answers.

The stakes? AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson says this crisis has the potential to hit 10 on the Richter scale.

Barra will mark her 77th day in office on April 1, when she appears before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. While everyone knew that the curiosity about the hockey mom with Finnish roots would fade, no one thought she would be writing a defining chapter of her tenure this early.

Says Barra: "We will be better because of this tragic situation if we seize the opportunity."

This is her moment to seize.

You can reach Jason Stein at jstein@crain.com. -- Follow Jason on Twitter

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