On December 2014, nearly a year into her tenure as CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra said GM basically does "one thing":
"We build cars, trucks and crossovers."
She has spent the years since then trying to defy that bland characterization, moving GM aggressively into emerging segments such as electrification and autonomous vehicles — costly technologies with unproven business models.
It's a sign of how much the industry has changed, and how much that first year affected Barra, 56, Automotive News' 2018 Industry Leader of the Year. Weeks after shattering the industry's glass ceiling as the first woman to head a major car company, she became the public face of a crisis, a massive recall of GM small cars to fix an ignition switch with a deadly defect.
She was berated during congressional hearings in Washington and forced to confront a pattern of indecision, complacency and incompetence — laid bare in a 276-page report by outside investigators — at a company where she had spent her entire career.
Not only did she survive the ordeal, she used it as a catalyst to reshape the now-110-year-old automaker's infamously siloed operations and culture.
And as she approaches the five-year mark of her appointment as CEO, she's calling on those crisis-management skills and lessons again to help drive the company and its work force of 180,000-plus through its next transformation and further from the shadows of "old" GM.
Since that first year, Barra said this month at The New York Times' DealBook Conference, "I've become much more impatient about how we do things and how quickly we do things."
The impatience shows. Under Barra and her executive team, GM has moved decisively to exit unprofitable or slow-moving markets and has redirected those resources to emerging technologies and alternative revenue opportunities, with a more inspiring call to action: "Zero crashes. Zero emissions. Zero congestion."
GM is considered a fast mover in future technologies such as electrified and autonomous vehicles, and in using its stockpile of consumer and vehicle data to generate new revenue.
Yet the shadow of old GM, and its ignominious federally backed bankruptcy, has proved tough to outrun. Despite GM outperforming Wall Street's expectations for 14 consecutive quarters, its stock price has traded near or below the 2010 initial public offering price of $33 through much of Barra's tenure.
And so, Barra drives forward with even more urgency, determined to get ahead of the inevitable cyclical downturn and any other headwinds that might impede its progress.
"Right now, she is doing the right thing by right-sizing the company before a possible recession hits," said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader. "She's also done well in terms of preparing the company for the future."