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Interview: GM's New CEO, Mary Barra

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Mary Barra, who’s only 51, has just been appointed the first woman CEO of General Motors, succeeding Dan Akerson, who’s retiring in mid-January. You bet this is a big deal: GM has always had a very cautious, conservative culture, and slow to respond to changing times. My guess is that, John Z. DeLorean aside, nobody there wore bellbottoms until at least 1972.

Mary Barra, with GM aide, at the New York Times in November. (Jim Motavalli photo)GM’s bankruptcy and resurrection—it just paid off the last of its government loans—seems to have transformed it into a somewhat faster-acting company. Now it has global vehicle platforms and credible small cars, plus a range of green entries. But GM is still pretty cautious.

In choosing Akerson and his predecessor, Ed Whitacre, GM went outside the usual promote-from-within policy that traditionally groomed GM CEOs over long periods of apprenticeship. Barra’s choice, then, is somewhat of a return to form, because she’s a 33-year veteran.

As it happens, in early November I was with a team at the New York Times Manhattan headquarters interviewing Barra, who was then head of global product development. We knew then that she was a candidate for the CEO job—Akerson had said so in September, “The Detroit Three are all run by non-car guys. Someday, there will be a Detroit Three that’s run by a car gal.” But considered a more likely appointment was Mark Reuss, chief of North American operations, who is instead getting Barra’s old job. Another contender was Stephen Girsky, a vice chairman, who's now leaving the company and becoming an advisor. Since Barra’s so young, it could be quite a while—barring mishaps—before the job is open again.

So what did Barra have to say? This was GM, and she was up for the top job, so to say she was cautious was an understatement. She’s nothing like the highly opinionated Bob Lutz, but then Lutz rose only as high as vice chairman—he never got the top job he so much wanted. At no time did Barra step out on any limbs or make provocative statements. She did profess a love for her first GM vehicles—a Chevette and a Fiero—because “they gave me freedom.” There’s no classic cars in her garage, though she said “my husband is looking for the perfect Camaro.”

Chevrolet's award-winning Chevy Malibu sits on the type of global platform Barra will champion. (GM photo)So here are some of the thoughts of Mary Barra, as she prepares to take over GM’s top job:

On being a woman in a male-dominated auto world: “I started at 18, as a student at the GM Institute, now Kettering University. My dad was a Pontiac tool and die maker for 39 years. I’d say the culture has changed dramatically—there are a lot more women. It’s more welcoming, and there are women in every aspect of the business.”

On competing: “Before, we just wanted to have a car in each segment; now we want to go in to win it. At the end of the day, there will be economic challenges, but great products across the board are the way out.”

On GM’s money-losing presence in Europe: “We’re past wanting out of Europe. We’re getting strong product feedback on our new Opel vehicles. We are a global manufacturer, and we need a presence there—Europe is a critical part of the product team. We can break even in Europe by mid-decade.”

On China, where GM sells more Buicks than it does in the U.S.: “China is a very significant market, and we have a good presence there. Buick is our first and strongest brand, but Chevrolet and Cadillac are also contenders. We will see a series of product launches there, and expect continued growth in the Chinese market.”

On globalization: “We started with global structures in 2005/2006. With the Buick Regal and LaCrosse, plus the Chevy Malibu, we started leveraging the architecture to get synergies. There are opportunities with common components. With something like heating and air conditioning systems, as long as they blow hot or cold in a reasonable time, people are fine. Every line has had unique seat foam, so that meant a lot of validation. But if we can standardize seat foams, the customer doesn’t really care.”  

On greening manufacturing and the supply chain (part of her old job): “We’re taking a critical look at the supply chain, but we don’t have a specific plan. We’re building LEED-certified buildings, working at developing recycling infrastructure, and expect to be landfill-free across the globe.”

On GM’s Chevy Volt, its upscale Cadillac ELR sibling and the Chevy Spark EV: “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about EVs with extended range, but month-over-month sales of the Volt look good. The Spark EV is small but peppy—you don’t have to give anything up. GM is very committed to electrification—it’s a big priority to make it work.”

On Tesla Motors: “Tesla is a formidable company. I’ve spent time in the Model S, and I have a lot of respect for it. It does some things similarly to the Volt, but it’s an impressive vehicle.”

On fuel-cell cars: “We have an active partnership with Honda, and 2.5 million miles driven on hydrogen. We have no date on a production car, but we have a long-term commitment.”

On self-driving cars: “We’re seeing components of it in cars now, such as adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings. My view is that autonomous cars are one of many stepping stones along the way.”

On gas prices: “Prices are down from their historic highs. If anyone could predict where gas prices are going, they’d be rich.”

Since she can’t predict gas prices, GM under Barra will continue to cover the whole market and—she hopes—dominate each segment. Ed Whitacre seems to think the company has made a good choice. “Well, it's a huge company and has a lot of moving parts,” he told Bloomberg Television. “It’s a very competitive business. You have to have really good products and you have to keep them coming. She'll have to balance all those balls and continue to go forward….I think she can continue that.”

Here's Barra, before she knew she'd scaled the heights, talking about working on a team, and inspiring other women to work in a male-dominated field:

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