Mary Barra, a child of GM, prepares to lead it

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 24, 2013 at 2:40 pm •  Published: December 24, 2013

DETROIT (AP) — When Mary Barra was born in 1961, General Motors was selling half the cars on U.S. roads.

In her booming middle-class suburb north of Detroit, the woman who will soon become GM's CEO remembers pining as a 10-year-old for her cousin's red Camaro convertible and tinkering in the garage with her father, a die maker who spent four decades at GM.

In 33 years at GM, Barra has worked in engineering, communications and human resources. She's gained in-depth knowledge of a company whose complexity contributed to its losing ground to rivals and, four years ago, a trip through bankruptcy court. In each stop, Barra analyzed the situation and simplified things. For instance, she streamlined designs by using the same parts in many different models.

One of her professors at General Motors Institute, now Kettering University, saw evidence of her managerial abilities early on.

"She was great in getting jobs done, putting a team together and making sure that it's being done right," Mo Torfeh says. "She was always the person who took charge."

Now it's up to Barra — the first woman to lead a global automaker — to ensure GM prospers for a new generation of 212,000 employees spread over 23 time zones. GM's board unanimously approved her for the post two weeks ago after CEO Dan Akerson announced he would step down to help his wife battle cancer.

Barra, 52, inherits a company that's putting out strong new products and making money. Since leaving bankruptcy in 2009, GM has racked up almost $20 billion in profits. But it also faces intense competition in its home market and challenges in Europe and other regions.

Friends and colleagues say Barra has an unusual mix of skills. She's fiercely intelligent yet humble and approachable. She's collaborative but is often the person who takes charge. And she's not afraid to make changes.

"When you put her in a position that's completely new to her, she does an amazing job of getting grounded, understanding what's important and what's not and executing very well," said Gary Cowger, a former GM executive who mentored Barra.

Barra, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has said she had an early aptitude for math and science. Her mother, one of eight children who never attended college, encouraged Barra and made higher education a priority for her and her brother.

"She was so supportive, not saying 'You have to do this or that,' but whatever you do, put your heart in it," Barra said at Inforum, a professional development group for women, at an event in Detroit last year.

Barra joined GM at 18. She was a co-op student, working for several months at a time at GM's Pontiac division while studying for her engineering degree at General Motors Institute, a Flint, Mich., college then owned by the company.

In a lab where students worked in teams to build electric motor controls, Barra showed natural management skills not often found in engineers, said Torfeh, the veteran professor who instructed Barra in at least two classes.

Barra was near the top of her class, but wasn't the smartest engineer. Her people skills, however, were so strong that Torfeh thought at the time Barra would rise high in the male-dominated auto business.

Through the years, Barra stayed in touch with Torfeh. Last June, when she spoke at Kettering's commencement, Barra took time to congratulate Torfeh and his daughter, who was graduating that day.

GMI was the training ground for many female executives in the auto industry, including Diana Tremblay, a GM vice president, and Carla Bailo, head of Nissan Motor Co.'s research in the Americas.

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