GM CEO known for approachability, effectiveness

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 11, 2013 at 8:31 am •  Published: December 11, 2013
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DETROIT (AP) — Kettering University President Robert McMahan was traveling in China a few months ago when he bumped into one of the university's board members at an airport in Shanghai.

Mary Barra, the busy global product development chief at General Motors Co., might have just said hello and turned back to her phone. Instead, she had a long discussion with McMahan's teenage son about his education and his efforts to learn Mandarin.

"I turned to my son after she left and said, 'I put a month's pay on the fact that you just met the next president and CEO of GM,'" McMahan said. "Even he, as a 16-year-old, was impressed by her approachability."

McMahan can keep his pay. On Tuesday, GM's board named Barra, a 33-year company veteran, as its next CEO, making her the first woman to lead a major car company.

Barra replaces Dan Akerson, who moved up retirement plans by several months to help his wife, Karin, battle advanced cancer.

When Barra starts her new job Jan. 15, she will lead a company that's made nearly $20 billion since emerging from bankruptcy in 2010, much of it from the cars and trucks she helped develop. But she still faces challenges of paring down GM's costs and winning over buyers in international markets such as India and South America.

Akerson, 65, said he had planned to stay at least until spring, but his wife's diagnosis changed that. He said the board unanimously picked Barra from several internal candidates because of the breadth of her experience, her management record, her people skills and her understanding of GM's operations.

"This is an executive who has a vision of where she wants to take the organization," he said.

Since February 2011, Barra has held what many say is the most important job at GM. She joined the company in 1980 as an engineering student at Kettering — then known as General Motors Institute — and became a plant manager, executive director of engineering and head of human resources.

Along the way, she earned a reputation as a manager who made tough decisions, yet was able to get people to follow her lead and work as a team, according to current and former GM executives. Noting her talent, GM sent her to Stanford University to get an MBA.

The 51-year-old executive has been in charge of design, engineering and quality for all GM vehicles and has shepherded most of the company's recent new vehicle introductions. Under her command, GM rolled out brawny new full-size pickup trucks, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, and the Chevrolet Impala full-size car, which earned the highest score for a sedan in testing by Consumer Reports magazine.

During her tenure, GM's quality scores rose in surveys done by J.D. Power and Associates. She also streamlined the organization, eliminating positions and putting one engineer in charge of each vehicle.

"I don't see any reason why she won't be a huge success," said Ed Whitacre, a former CEO and chairman who promoted Barra to head human resources.

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