No matter how much attention she draws as the auto industry’s first female chief executive, Mary Barra is determined to keep the focus on cars and trucks at General Motors Co (GM).
In her first extended public comments since taking over the top job at GM on Jan. 15, Barra on Thursday vowed to accelerate its comeback from bankruptcy with improved products, better brands and consistently profitable operations around the world.
It is a tall order for a company that has only recently stabilized since its government bailout five years ago — but Barra is already putting her stamp on the nation’s largest auto company.
In a two-day meeting this week with GM executives from around the world, Barra crystallized the mission ahead of them.
“I told the team that there is no destination here, that this is a continuous improvement journey,” she said in an interview. “Don’t confuse progress with winning.”
A trained engineer and former plant manager, Barra, who speaks in measured tones, brings a shop-floor attitude to the executive suite of a company that has historically drawn its leaders from the world of finance.
And while she gracefully handled the crush of camera crews capturing her every move at the recent Detroit auto show, Barra has gone to great lengths to keep the focus on GM’s competitive position rather than on her newfound celebrity.
“Even when you’re leading in a segment, that’s only for the moment,” she said. “It’s a very competitive business and others are looking to surpass you, so you have to continually keep raising the bar for yourself.”
The auto world has watched intently as GM — known for so long as the most staid and conservative of the US carmakers — has basked in the aura of Barra’s ascension. However, the sudden focus on Barra has raised questions about whether a tried-and-true GM employee of 33 years can drive the firm to new heights.
“I think people are generally in a state of uncertainty,” said David Cole, former chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. “Mary knows the company and has a lot of history with the people, but she is facing enormous expectations.”
Her low-key, inclusive style is a far cry from the personality of her predecessor, Daniel Akerson, who was appointed to the GM board by the government and spent much of his four years as chief executive cajoling the company to shed its hidebound culture.
Barra is hardly shifting the strategy advocated by Akerson, which included a greater emphasis on building the Cadillac luxury brand and leveraging GM’s global scale to produce products that can be sold successfully in every region of the world.
“There is no right turn or left turn we’re going to be making,” she said at a round-table meeting with reporters on Thursday. “We want to accelerate.”
During the round table, Barra never wavered as she gently deflected repeated questions about the significance of her role as the first woman to run a car company.
She listened intently each time the topic was brought up, but calmly and firmly cast aside any suggestion that her appointment was historic for the male-dominated industry.
“There has been a lot of coverage,” she said. “But my gender doesn’t really factor into my thinking as I come into a room.”
She did pledge to be a visible, approachable presence throughout the company — again a contrast to the imperial leaders GM has had in the past — holding regular town-hall meetings, smaller get-acquainted sessions and Web chats with employees. This weekend, Barra was to travel to Europe for the first of several planned visits to GM’s regional operations.
Cole, whose father was president of GM in the 1960s, said employees at the company seemed keenly optimistic to have someone at the helm whom many of them have known personally for years.
“It’s going to be an altogether different situation than with Akerson, who was more of a brusque, top-down kind of manager,” he said. “Mary just has a far deeper understanding of the company and its strengths and weaknesses.”