It’s certainly a watershed moment — Mary Barra, the incoming CEO of General Motors, is not only the first woman to head one of the Big Three, she’s the first to helm any major automaker. Even in bastions of women’s liberation such as Scandinavia, females haven’t ascended to the catbird seat.
Barra proclaimed an end to “crappy cars” during her tenure as product chief, and she held to it, too. GM’s culture will certainly change under her leadership, but I’d say not in obvious ways. Her first priority will be proving herself, and that itself will dictate some of her initial moves. Here are six ways the company will remake itself during her tenure — which could be a long one, considering she’s only 51.
1. Don’t expect a surge of women in top spots. The truth is that GM was already heavily promoting women. That’s how Barra got prepped for the role, and she was one of four female vice presidents. In 2010, I did a story entitled The Women Behind the Chevrolet Volt in which I noted, “Yes, in a business as traditionally sexist as automobile manufacturing, females are calling the shots for this much-anticipated ‘range extender’ car that in some ways is carrying the future of General Motors along with it.” The chief engineer, marketing manager and assembly plant head for the Volt were all women. “It’s all about having the right experience and being there at the right time,” said Pam Fletcher, the chief engineer and holder of a master’s in combustion engineering. That will continue.
2. Decisions will be made faster. GM has a history of being slow to adopt innovation. Yes, it was the company that introduced the electric self-starter, pioneered rear engine technology with the Corvair, and tried new ways of making cars with its Saturn division, but for the most part it aimed its product line right at Middle America and let the other guys be in the vanguard. But now the flyover states want the cutting edge, too, and people will buy new and exciting. Barra, despite being pretty cautious as she moved up the corporate ladder, gets this.
Thanks to Dan Akerson for his amazing leadership. The new @GM team is aligned and ready to continue the momentum and pick up the pace.— Mary Barra (@mtbarra) December 10, 2013
3. Electrics will hold their own. Barra says the company is “very committed on electrification — it’s a big priority to make it work.” There’s no indication that she’s a huge believer in cars with plugs, but she’s a big picture strategist and recognizes that meeting regulatory goals — in Europe, the U.S. and states like California — will be much harder without zero emission fleets. Barra is closely watching the disruptive potential of Tesla Motors and its Model S, which she calls “formidable.”
5. Performance cars could take a hit. Though Barra has been with the company 33 years, and comes from a GM family, her first company purchase was a Chevette, followed by a Fiero. She's not a "race on Sunday, win on Monday" type, and she’s not going to build low-volume performance cars championed by the auto buff books if they don’t pencil out. She won’t cancel the Corvette or anything — the flak would be intense — but I’m not sure she would have greenlighted niche sports cars like the ill-fated Saturn Sky/Pontiac Solstice.
6. Operations will be streamlined. Outgoing chief Dan Akerson, who groomed Barra for the top job, calls her “a change agent.” What that means is that she’s not going to focus on promoting women, but on turning GM into a leaner and more efficient company. I’d love to know if her fingerprints are on GM’s decision to stop building cars in Australia, where the automaker had been for 90 years. Yes, Ford and Toyota are exiting too, because of cuts in annual subsidies, but it must have been hard for GM to pull the plug on such an entrenched division. Expect more standardization of parts across product lines, platforms that deliver more value for the company.
Barra takes office next month. Here's a Reuters video on the "not unexpected" appointment:
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