DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- How can an auto company save money while introducing 18 new or refreshed vehicles in 12 months?
General Motors must answer that question if the company is to achieve CEO Dan Akerson's goal of increasing profits and widening profit margins this year and next. And the executive who must provide a lot of the answers is Grace Lieblein, 52, GM's purchasing boss.
Although Lieblein never worked in purchasing before taking her current post late last year, her experiences in other areas have given her contacts and insights that could help her department better bridge the needs of product development and manufacturing while saving money.
Lieblein has been with GM for more than 30 years, a career path that has taken her from being a student at General Motors Institute, now Kettering University, to leading roles in Mexico and Brazil, and now to the top of a purchasing department with 5,100 employees and 3,000 direct suppliers.
She made her mark as the chief engineer on the program that included the GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave crossovers, which went on sale in 2007. That job helped her better understand customer needs and prepared her for sales roles overseas, she said.
She took over Mexico operations in January 2009, a few months before GM went into bankruptcy in the United States, and headed to Brazil 21/2 years later.
During her time in Brazil, she gained knowledge of suppliers while the unit rolled out nine new models in 20 months.
"When I got there and I looked at that schedule, I thought, 'Oh, there's no way we're going to be able to do this,'" she said. "But we did."
Part of Lieblein's legacy in Brazil was integrating purchasing and logistics with product development globally, said Jaime Ardila, president of GM South America. "I have never seen those two areas working more closely together than I did during her tenure," Ardila said in an interview. "That will have prepared her well, and I think she will make a significant contribution in integrating those teams in the U.S."
In the near term, Lieblein is working on smoothing the launch of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups this quarter, calling in retired GM engineers with years of experience in bringing out new products, and working with suppliers to help troubleshoot any problems that might arise during the launch.
"A flawless launch doesn't mean that stuff isn't going to happen," she says. "A flawless launch is how the team reacts to that."