DETROIT — Mary Barra has been chairman and CEO of General Motors for only 3½ years, but the company she leads today is vastly different from the one she inherited: more decisive, focused, responsive and responsible.
Barra and a team that combines GM lifers and carefully selected newcomers are creating a company that’s more sensitive to its customers and more focused on profit than ever before.
“We’ve never seen anybody run GM like this. She’s breaking all the rules,” KBB.com executive analyst Rebecca Lindland said.
Phrases such as “customer first” and “good stewards of our owners’ money,” are touchstones of the culture growing within GM.
“GM used to be all about sales volume and market share,” Autotrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs said. “Now, if they don’t see a path to profitability and leadership, they get out. The goal is to sell fewer vehicles and make more money. It’s a new GM.”
Among the defining moments of Barra’s tenure:
• The company accepted responsibility, apologized and essentially wrote a blank check when a GM employee allegedly concealed faulty ignition switches that led to accidents and multiple deaths.
• It has aggressively pursued radical new technologies and developing businesses, including ridesharing, autonomous vehicles and mass-market electric cars.
• It has shut down money-losing operations in Russia, Australia, India and South Africa.
• It has sold its European operations to Peugeot SA, essentially exiting a huge, but unprofitable, market
• It has put data from customers at the heart of its product development and manufacturing decisions.
Common themes among those decisions include a refusal to let problems fester and an understanding that bright ideas and catchy slogans are meaningless unless GM has the focus and finances to deliver on them.
“The easiest time to solve a problem is when it’s small,” Barra said in an interview. “We talk to everybody about that: Raise issues (early) so you can get the help to solve them.”
Barra was a highly regarded but little-known career engineer — GM’s global product development chief — when she was thrust into the global spotlight as the first female CEO of an automaker.
“My mom and dad raised me and my brother to believe we could do anything we set our minds to,” she said. “They were raised in the Depression, and they so believed in the American Dream.
When Barra joined GM in 1985, a female chair and CEO of GM was almost inconceivable. GM and all automakers were an old-economy boys club, very unlike the high-tech companies the 21st century demands.
“I didn’t necessarily go ‘I’m a woman in the working world,’” she said. “I was a person in the working world.
“I do sit here today because there were people 20 years ago who gave me career opportunities and gave me constructive feedback and allowed me to grow and took risks on me with the jobs they put me in.”
GM global product development and purchasing boss Mark Reuss worked alongside Barra for decades. They watched GM management kick problems down the road and make one money-losing decision after another. When the government-overseen bankruptcy gave GM a fresh start after the 2007-09 recession, the two fast-rising executives promised themselves they would not repeat those mistakes.
“GM came out of bankruptcy with a clean slate, none of the baggage that had crippled them,” Maryann Keller, principal at analyst Maryann Keller & Associates, said. “The only liability was cultural issues that allowed them to pretend the bankruptcy had been because of the credit crisis, not management’s own bad decisions.”
Bolstered by GM president Dan Ammann’s financial analysis, Barra set a new course, abandoning some longtime businesses that made little money, strengthening those positioned to grow and committing GM to new areas including autonomous vehicles, car-sharing and alternative energy.
“One of the most important things leaders do is deploy capital,” Barra said. “You’ve got to set strategy and deploy capital. We have been systematically going through the business, region by region and segment by segment, asking, ‘Do we have a path to profitability, and is this the best place for us to allocate this capital?’ “
While shedding old-line businesses with little profit potential, GM has also invested in technologies and partnerships that may not pay off for years, including autonomous vehicles and the Maven car-sharing service.
“General Motors is a different company under Mary Barra,” Apple vice president of product marketing Greg Joswiak said. “She realized the importance of technology and put an incredible team in place. Her approach is night and day from the previous GM.”
Biggest not best
For decades, GM defined itself largely by the fact that it was the world’s largest automaker. Ending production in Europe took GM out of a three-way race with Toyota and Volkswagen for No. 1.
Barra’s comfortable with that: “Biggest doesn’t mean best. We don’t win until our customers say we win. They need to decide to buy our products.”
Barra says the goal is to be “the most valued automotive company,” a concept that goes beyond sales or stock value.
“It means most valued by all the stakeholders we partner with to do business, whether it’s our suppliers, dealers, employees, unions or the communities where we do business,” she said. “It means suppliers bring their best technology to us first. Employees want to work here. Dealers focus on our brands.
“All of that creates the most value, which then allows us to have the right return for our shareholders.”
The ignition switch crisis, in which an employee allegedly hid the truth about dangerously defective parts for years, provided the first window on another side of the new GM.
Barra, Reuss and other leaders had been working on a new set of company values “focused on customers, relationships and excellence” for a couple of years before the crisis broke.
Those principles guided GM’s response to the revelations that dangerous faults had been concealed from customers.
“It’s easy to say ‘Here’s our values,’ or ‘Here’s our mission statement. Let’s put it on a wall. Let’s all be excited,’” Barra said. “But it’s living it, and it’s living it when it’s hard” that matters. “So one of the things I (say) to employees all the time is: ‘We are going to do the right thing. We are going to deliver value, even when it’s hard.’”
Barra’s presentations to employees and the press when the crisis blew up have become textbook cases other companies cite in leadership and crisis-management seminars.
“As we worked through the recall, we were guided by three principals,” she said.
“We are going to do what’s right for the customer.
“We are going to do everything in our power to make sure this never happens again.
“We’re going to be transparent.”
GM still has to navigate the U.S. market’s historic shift from cars to SUVs and trucks and the rise of technologies such as autonomous and electric vehicles and vehicle sharing. The answers to those and other questions will be shaped by a data-driven process the company calls customer first. In essence, it aims to end the days when engineers thought they knew what buyers wanted more than the buyers themselves did.
“You have to put aside your personal opinions and figure out what will get people really excited and create vehicles they’ve got to have,” Pam Fletcher, executive chief engineer of global and autonomous vehicles, said. Citing Super Cruise, an advanced new autonomous driving system that goes on sale in the 2018 Cadillac CT6 this fall, she said, “There’s a lot of things we could do technically, but in the end it’s supposed to be a feature that is a driver-assistant and keeps you safe. We get squarely focused on that and begin to take away some things that might demonstrate what we’re technically capable of but mean nothing to the customer.
“It’s a big mistake if you just focus on the technology. You’ve got to have your eye on the prize. You have to have your eye on what is it that we’re going to do for a customer that they’ll say, ‘I’ve got to have that.’ That’s what you have to focus on. The technology is just the tool you use to deliver that.”