DETROIT -- Mark Reuss knows most people doubted the ability of two second-generation General Motors lifers to change the automaker's dysfunctional culture, especially after the 2014 crisis sparked by faulty ignition switches showed how deeply ingrained problems were.
Reuss -- GM's product development chief and the son of former GM President Lloyd Reuss -- said that skepticism has helped drive him and CEO Mary Barra as they instilled the focus and discipline that's now helping to produce record profits.
"That is incredible motivation to prove people wrong, for me, and I know it is for Mary," Reuss said.
Barra's father was a die maker for GM's Pontiac division. She and Reuss started their careers at GM as students in the early 1980s.
"We have seen it all," Reuss said last week at the Automotive News World Congress here. "The only thing we hadn't really seen was a period of time when the company really, really did well, because that was a little before our time."
As the industry and the company seemed to be collapsing around them in 2009, Reuss said he and Barra promised each other they would stick with GM. Reuss had just returned from a stint with GM's operations in Australia, and Barra was in charge of human resources at the time.
"I can remember standing with her in a parking lot in some of the darkest days. She said to me, "If you are ever leaving this, you must tell me before you do. We had a pact,'" Reuss recalled.
"I said, "I am not, because I know what this company can be,'" Reuss said. "And she said, "Mark, I know the people in this company can win, and we have to enable the people in this company to win.'"
Even after bankruptcy transformed the company's balance sheet, New GM carried on much of the same culture that had gotten the automaker into trouble, Reuss said. Five years later, just weeks into Barra's tenure as CEO, the discovery of a long-hidden defect in millions of ignition switches provided an even more powerful signal of the dramatic changes that needed to happen, he said.
"We used that to really change the way the company behaved, and also to change what was OK and wasn't OK, and what we wanted to be," said Reuss, who suddenly found himself having to act as a detective to find and fix problems quickly. "It was an unbelievably painful process."
Today, Barra told reporters last week, GM is a "fundamentally different company."
The ignition-switch defect, ultimately linked to at least 124 deaths over 12 years, cost GM billions of dollars in penalties and legal settlements. It also prompted the company to recall more than 30 million vehicles as engineers uncovered other potential flaws.
One positive change the crisis produced was GM's Speak Up for Safety program, which encourages workers to notify management of potential problems. They can do so without divulging their identity, but fewer than 5 percent of the reports submitted have been anonymous, Reuss said.
"For me," he said, "that's a big proof point that people really want the right thing."