"She wanted them to have fun at a highly stressful time, but also
encourage teamwork and collaboration ... to show that's how we run
our business on a global basis," said John Calabrese, GM's vice
president of global engineering.
Patterned after an April event that Barra and team members staged
with third graders at Detroit's Bates Academy, the internal
"skimmer" competition brought together teams of executives vying for
such awards as fastest boat, most creative design, best logo and
In deceptively simple fashion, the sailboat race addressed perhaps
the biggest concern to Wall Street analysts and investors and the
major challenge facing the 52-year-old electrical engineer and
Stanford MBA: How to continue breaking down silos and walls within
the U.S. automaker's historically dysfunctional and disconnected
corporate culture and remake GM into a more collaborative and
When she takes the reins from Dan Akerson on Wednesday, Barra, a
Detroit-area native and GM "lifer" who started as an 18-year-old
intern in 1980, also will be expected to tackle some unfinished
business. Among her tasks: Overhauling GM's global brands, reviving
and returning to profitability the company's battered European
operations, and fattening up profit margins, which lag those of
Barra's promotion has drawn mixed reviews outside Detroit, where she
is little-known. Even Wall Street has expressed some skepticism.
"Her reputation is (as) a bit of a lightweight," said an investment
banker who has worked with GM. "She has not distinguished herself in
any heavy-duty operating role. She's sort of a blank slate."
That is not the case at GM, where Barra's father, Ray Makela, was a
diemaker at Pontiac for 39 years and where she trained on the
factory floor while earning a degree at General Motors Institute in
Flint, Michigan. Barra's career started to pick up speed after she
won a GM fellowship to the Stanford University MBA program, from
which she graduated in 1990.
Positioned on the management fast track at a relatively early age
and mentored by a number of top executives virtually all men
Barra was given increasingly greater responsibility as she knocked
off one task after another. Most recently she has helped spearhead
GM's ongoing globalization efforts, focusing the past three years on
reducing cost, complexity and waste in the automaker's sprawling
product development and manufacturing operations.
To date, she has been only partly successful in increasing the
number of parts shared by GM vehicles around the world. The company
still trails U.S. rival Ford Motor Co <F.N> and European giant
Volkswagen AG <VOWG_p.DE> in moving its products to common
GM under Barra is aiming to shift more vehicles to a handful of core
platforms that will offer a greater degree of flexibility and parts
interchangeability, thus reducing engineering and production costs.
But that shift appears to be at least several years from completion.
Barra has demonstrated her technical and financial chops in a
variety of key jobs over the past 15 years.
Following a three-year stint as an executive assistant to
then-Chairman Jack Smith and Vice Chairman Harry Pearce, she was
tapped in 1999 to head internal communications, a role in which she
helped GM repair relations with the United Auto Workers after a
crippling strike in Michigan.
She then spent two years as an executive director in GM's North
American vehicle operations before being assigned in 2003 to oversee
the launch of the Cadillac DTS and Buick LeSabre as manager of the
Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant.
Her knack for team-building still resonates a decade later with
George McGregor, president of UAW Local 22 at the plant. McGregor
described Barra as "a people person, great to work with."
One criticism of Barra, according to a former GM executive who
worked with her, is that "she was never in a job long enough to have
much of an impact." Several of the people interviewed for this story
asked not to be named because they still do business with GM.
The record and the recollections of more than a dozen current and
former colleagues tells a different story.
Although she has not run a GM operating unit a traditional
stepping stone to the corner office Barra in the past 10 years has
headed three critical areas: Manufacturing engineering, human
resources and, most recently, product development. She has made
significant contributions in each job.
[to top of second column]
As executive director, then vice president, of manufacturing
engineering from 2004 to 2009, Barra worked with a team of top
executives to overhaul and streamline GM's tangled production plants
and processes around the world and better integrate them with
product development, according to Gary Cowger, former group vice
president of global manufacturing and labor relations. As a result,
GM has been able to trim development costs and move products to
Then-CEO Fritz Henderson shifted Barra in mid-2009 to head human
resources as the corporation was undergoing a painful bankruptcy and
tumultuous restructuring as part of a $49.5 billion U.S. government
Barra revamped and simplified the company's convoluted HR policies
and procedures and loosened the dress code, encouraging employees to
dress "appropriately," colleagues said. She also helped new CEO Ed
Whitacre, the former AT&T Inc <T.N> chairman who replaced Henderson
in late 2009, to thin GM's swollen management ranks and shuffle jobs
"She and I spent a lot of time together trying to reorganize GM,"
said Whitacre. "She's steady in the boat."
Barra may have had the greatest impact and encountered the most
internal resistance as head of GM's $15 billion global product
development group since early 2011.
Her contribution was not only to continue the global platform
consolidation, but, as she did at HR, to streamline and simplify the
way things got done. She managed some "significant business
pruning," according to Jim Queen, former group vice president of
global engineering. This included reducing the number of managers on
each vehicle development team.
Barra also revamped the product development process, breaking down
each platform into modules and subsystems that could be more easily
shared from region to region, according to a longtime Detroit-based
auto consultant who has worked with GM.
"These are not minor changes," the consultant said. "There was
strong resistance from the different regions to do that (but) it has
happened pretty fast and relatively smoothly, with a team that is
now definitely more consistent and more united than before."
Her more than three decades of experience at GM and deep knowledge
of the GM system set Barra apart from Akerson and Whitacre, the two
most recent CEOs, while her extensive technical background is
radically different from Henderson and Rick Wagoner, the two GM
finance veterans who held the job prior to Whitacre.
Her hands-on management style, emphasis on teamwork and ability to
express compassion are distinguishing hallmarks.
Two GM colleagues described regular meetings that Barra has held for
smaller groups of employees, some to explain technical issues or
discuss profit targets, others to map product and process changes
that could have a broad strategic impact on the company and its
Barra's warmth and her collaborative approach to problem solving
have won her many admirers inside GM, said another colleague: "She
engenders loyalty through example and kindness."
"She rarely is the one who speaks first," said a source who has
worked with Barra. "She makes sure everyone is heard" and when the
time comes, she speaks and makes a decision.
She will need that confidence and support to continue attacking the
inefficiencies, bloated bureaucracy and cultural issues that nearly
strangled the old GM.
Her selection as GM's next CEO could be "the most important decision
that Dan Akerson has made," said analyst and longtime GM-watcher
Maryann Keller. "But you won't know until she actually gets the job
and appoints the people that she wants around her to help her finish
a job that's only partly done."
(Additional reporting by Deepa
Seetharaman and Bernie Woodall in Detroit; editing by Matthew Lewis)
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