As General Motors fought to find its footing following bankruptcy, Mary Barra was tasked with managing the guts of its revival. Now she's known as the person who restored order at GM. In less than three years in her role as global product development chief, Barra moved at a dizzying pace and helped to return both confidence and profit to the once-beleaguered automaker. On Tuesday, she was rewarded for her efforts. Barra, 51, was named CEO of General Motors. She is the first woman to lead a US car company.
She's known as the person who restored order at GM.
"Mary went into an organization that, frankly, four years ago was in chaos," said outgoing CEO Dan Akerson, who announced his retirement at the same time. "She was central to the whole evolution." Against the improbable backdrop of GM's federal bailout, Barra spearheaded the revitalization of the company's lineup of cars, implemented widespread supply-chain changes and oversaw the creation of engine and vehicle strategies that, by decade's end, will result in 90 percent of the company's cars being produced on five or fewer platforms.
Akerson called the global product development role, "the most complicated," in the company. If there was anyone suited for such a role, it was Barra. For more than three decades, she has been a jack-of-all-trades at GM, rising through a series of manufacturing, engineering and human resource positions. She started her career at GM as an intern in 1980, and has worked on factory floors, once as manager at the company's Hamtramck Assembly Plant in Detroit, and she also served as executive director of the company's engineering operations.
"What a tremendous culmination of Mary Barra's career at GM," Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, told Autoblog. "She has truly climbed the corporate ladder through dedication and hard work. Her history and performance across multiple departments at General Motors has clearly given Dan Akerson and the board tremendous confidence in her ability to successfully lead the largest US automaker."
Her status as the first woman to lead a company in an industry that many perceive as a boys club was duly noted during Tuesday's announcement, but it might be another outsider credential that affects the day-to-day operations of GM. Financial analysts have noted that Barra's appointment marks the first time that someone with an engineering background has risen to the top, as opposed to the well-traveled path of executives ascending from the company's financial arms. That's a good thing, they say.
Barra's appointment marks the first time that someone with an engineering background has risen to the top.
"We believe the focus on effective product development and engineering processes will become more prevalent within GM with Barra's promotion, and will be part of the company's evolution and ongoing improvement," Barclays equity research said in a written statement.
For a company that seems to be putting its bankruptcy in the rear-view mirror, her hiring is perhaps a sign that General Motors can focus on cars as much as the finances.
"It could be interpreted as a signal that GM believes it's as much a car-making company as a money-making company," said Edmunds senior analyst Bill Visnic. "I think it's an important signal that as GM sheds the last of its financially-focused baggage, it's choosing an engineer to start a new era and frame the company's revised vision."
Barra, who graduated from Kettering University with a degree in electrical engineering, takes over at a time that is at once promising and perilous. One day before her tenure began, the US Treasury Department sold its last remaining stock in GM, and the company is now free from US taxpayer involvement. "Detroit is back, and GM could lead the way forward on the equity front," Dallas-based Hayman Capital told Bloomberg News last week.
Of more pressing concern is that even with a revamped lineup that includes the Chevy Impala and Cadillac ATS and Buick Encore, GM is in the midst of a fierce fight to retain its market share in North America and grow operations despite the ongoing recession in Europe.
"I think we have made great progress, and my message to folks today was, you know, as far as we've come, we must travel that much further to achieve the greatness this company once represented," Akerson said. Akerson, 65, said he had not anticipated retiring until the second half of 2014. But his wife was recently diagnosed with cancer, and that sped up his timeline. He said the board did not seriously consider any outside candidates, and that there were several qualified internal candidates. He was pleased to see Barra earn the job. "I don't want to get too corny here, but it was like watching your daughter graduating from college," he said.
Akerson: "I don't want to get too corny here, but it was like watching your daughter graduating from college."
Former GM chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre praised Barra's hiring: "It's a huge company and has a lot of moving parts," he said. "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 they're doing great. I think she can continue that."