Barra, a 33-year GM veteran who turns 52 on Christmas Eve, was
marked for future success in the company's "Progression and
Succession" reviews, annual surveys designed to identify young
high-potential employees, former GM executives said.
"She was always at the top of that list" in the late 1990s, said Don
Hackworth, who retired as head of GM's North American Car Group in
Barra's early identification as a "high-pot" executive led to a job
in the corporate suite, as Vice Chairman Harry Pearce's assistant,
when she was still in her 30s.
"It was a great opportunity to get an overview of how the
corporation works," said Michael Losh, GM's former chief financial
Barra's long tenure at GM — the Michigan native started as an
18-year-old engineering intern at Pontiac, where her father was a
die maker for nearly four decades — might have raised suspicions
that she was too much a part of the old regime, which was forced to
seek bankruptcy protection and a U.S. government bailout in 2009.
But "she wasn't part of the established order that destroyed the
company," said a Wall Street investment banker who has worked with
GM for decades. "She's the best of the 'old GM' and she's a pretty
modern thinker in terms of how to compete in today's world."
Former GM executive Lynn Myers, one of the first women in Detroit to
run a car division before her 2004 retirement, said: "This is not
business as usual at GM. It's not like the past. Mary is not afraid
to shake the bushes."
Executives cite Barra's "radical" restructuring over the past two
years of GM's sprawling and often dysfunctional global product
"She does what she thinks is necessary to take action if something
needs fixing," said Gary Cowger, GM's former group vice president
who retired in 2010.
Barra, the mother of a teenage son and daughter, is described by
those who know her as approachable, unflappable and inclusive.
"She can be under huge pressure and she just never loses her
calmness," said a person close to Barra. "She thinks things through.
When she speaks, I listen."
Neil De Koker, another former GM executive who sits with Barra on
the board of Kettering University, said: "She has great people
skills. She is easy to talk to and is an attentive listener.
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"When she talks to students, you can tell she's a mom. And that's
not the way you normally would describe the CEO of one of the
world's largest manufacturing companies."
The person close to Barra described how she deftly handled the
complicated and potentially traumatic overhaul of GM's engineering
and development groups.
"You know how sometimes people come in and change things and bodies
are left in the wake? That's not Mary. She might fire somebody (and)
they'd be hugging her and thanking her.
"She talks a lot about how important winning the hearts and minds of
employees is. I see her as a very motivational leader."
The issue of Barra's gender, she is the first woman CEO in a
century-old industry that has been dominated by men, is mentioned
frequently, but usually dismissed as the deciding factor in her
promotion to GM's top job.
"These 'firsts' of women CEOs are no longer newsworthy," said Bonnie
Baha, portfolio manager at DoubleLine Capital. "The focus should be
on her qualifications, which appear to be uniquely suited to running
Steven Rattner, the former head of President Barack Obama's task
force who helped steer GM's 2009 bailout, said: "I have absolutely
no doubt they picked (Barra) because she was the best person ...
This company has been through so much that the idea that they would
just do something to make history is unimaginable."
(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman,
Deepa Seetharaman and Bernie Woodall in Detroit and Jennifer Ablan
in New York. editing by Andre Grenon)
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