The Great Motor Women : Part Three – Mary Barra

Following on from his excellent – and ongoing – series The Great Motor Men, AROnline Contributor Martyn Kelham continues on his tour of the great motoring women.

Here, in the third part, he catches up with the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra.

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of GM Mary Barra

Turn the clock back to 15 January 2014 and Mary had landed her ‘dream job’! Some of us have been fortunate enough to experience that feeling, but we wouldn’t want her second week in the office!

As the new Chief Executive Officer of General Motors (GM), she knew there would be product recalls – but this was the ‘mother’ of them all. Initially, just 7000 Chevrolet Cobalts were involved but this totalled up to 2.4 million and lead GM to scrutinise its recall policy – eventually recalling 13.6 million vehicles for everything from a faulty tail lamp to a potential seat belt malfunction.

The first Cobalt recall was just two weeks into her new role. Later, she had to sit silently listening to the parents of ten kids – telling her what it was like to lose a loved one. Accidents included a GM Cobalt hitting a tree and the air bag not deploying – right up to two deaths in one car that crashed into a ditch. The story was like something from a movie, but this was real life – and death. In addition to the airbag failure, all keys were in the ‘accessory’ position and all the drivers were young – and had lost control.

Up before congress

A few months later, on 1 April 2014, Mary had to appear in front of a Congressional Sub-Committee looking at why GM had waited so long to recall the Cobalts. Much as Mary sympathised and had real empathy for these parents, her job was to get GM out of the mire and consign years of poor quality and mismanagement – including a $50 billion taxpayer funded bankruptcy – to the annals of history.

A little like a Prime Minister coming to office shortly before a worldwide pandemic occurs, Mary had been hit with the worst nightmare for a CEO of a major manufacturing company. The question at such times is – can that person cope? Just as important, can that individual influence the organisation to such an extent that the future is better than the past. Immediate company history proved that five predecessors had apparently failed to make their mark sufficiently to stay in post for very long.

Mary wisely surrounded herself with the best and most respected help she could get. Jeff Boyer was named Vice-President of Global Vehicle Safety, Anton Valukas was asked to lead an internal investigation and Kenneth Feinberg was appointed to handle compensation claims, having previously been involved with the victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Not many CEOs are in post for such a short time and then have to agree to the company paying a record $35 million fine.

A stellar rise to the top

But how did this one time student at the General Motors Institute (Kettering University) in 1980, get to the highest position possible in a global company? Graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering in 1985, Mary gained a Master of Business Administration from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1990.

In her time with GM she has held numerous positions including Plant Manager – Detroit Hamtramck Assembly (2003-2004), Executive Director – Vehicle Manufacturing Engineering (2004 t0 2008), Vice-President Global Manufacturing Engineering (2008 to 2009), Vice-President Global Human Resources (2009 to 2011), Senior Vice-President – Global Product Development (2011-2013) and Executive Vice-President – Global Product Development (2011-2014. Mary was elected to the Board of Directors in 2016 and has been CEO since January 2014. To hold this illustrious position for more than seven years is notable in a world of ever changing roles and constant jockeying for position.

The current focus is to have zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion. Critics, of course, counter with arguments that this is not only impossible but just ‘hype’ to please the politicians and the ‘greenies’ and get the American public to forget the past. Whichever it is, Mary and her team have little choice – they could hardly advocate accepting crashes, ignoring environmental concerns or continuing to produce oversized vehicles.

How to win the hearts of customers

The key to success has to be repeat business and Mary has focused on improving the customer experience and strengthening GM’s core vehicle and services business. The future may be electric and her team are working hard on personal mobility through advanced technologies: connectivity, electrification and autonomous driving.

Interestingly, Barra finds time to serve on the Board of Directors of the Walt Disney Company, the Duke University Board of Trustees and the Detroit Economic Club as well as being the Chair and founding member of GM’s Inclusion Advisory Board.

Other roles include being a member of The Business Council and a Board Member of the Business Roundtable. She also serves on a Special Board Committee on Racial Equality and Justice. As with so many big companies, the word ‘culture’ is overworked but all important. In 2014, Mary’s leadership had to change the established culture of GM – or she would have been merely a sailor on a sinking ship.

The biggest change? The company was now saying, ‘if we make a mistake, let’s say we made a mistake and move on.’ That ‘culture change’ ran up and down the company corridors and out on to the shop floor. Suppliers were amazed and enthusiastic for the ‘new order.’ One commentator at the time said that, ‘in the old GM, I don’t think we would have ever done that.’

All the qualities of success

Mary T Barra

So Mary is the archetypal ‘started at the ground floor and worked up’ CEO. As a student she worked at the noisy Press Shop within Pontiac. This was not a regular environment for a young lady in those days. Following graduation in the mid 80’s she landed a full-time job at Pontiac as a quality inspector. Three years later, GM paid for Mary to study and get an MBA at Stanford. At this point Mary married Tony, who also worked for GM. Those who knew her in the early days are quick to point to her strengths. She is a mix of cool, analytical Engineer – but a warm quick witted personable individual.

In 1999, she was asked to look at improving communications with plant operatives at a turbulent time in industrial relations. However, rather than a ‘softening’ of memos, recipients got ‘real time’ information about how they needed to buckle down and get performing better – if the company was to survive. Rather than thinking this was just ‘hot air’ – the workforce believed and understood the message – and reciprocated with more overtime and a better attitude.

In her first substantial senior management position, she was expected to bring the ‘showcase’ GM Hamtramck factory into line. It had opened in 1985 to counter the Japanese invasion, but had somewhat shot GM in the foot – being technologically unreliable. The robots were revolting – and loved to misbehave. The result had been numerous reorganisations and stability was not an oft-used word.

Like many good managers new in post, Mary spent a lot of time watching, listening and absorbing just what was going on. In a very short time she knew most workers by name, but let’s not run away with the idea that everything was sweetness and light. There were fights – but accounts from those who worked with her are quick to point out that differences were settled (mostly) amicably. A little later, D-ham (Detroit Hamtramck factory) won a JD Power quality award. Mary’s influence was demonstrable.

Interestingly, D-ham made Cadillacs, Buicks and Pontiacs, but not Cobalts – the car that would give Mary such a rough ride a decade later.

New processes, new issues

2005 Chevrolet Cobalt LT Sedan

Mary was promoted to Executive Director – Vehicle Manufacturing Engineering. In this role she developed factory processes but, unbeknown to her, a time bomb was ticking away – in the form of the ignition switch on the Cobalt. Despite concerns raised in the ‘inner circle’ no action was taken. In 2005, Product Engineers twice considered possible fixes to the switch. Instead, a Service Bulletin was issued requesting that dealers tell dissatisfied customers who complained about unexpected shutoffs, to remove heavy items from their key chains! A year later, without changing the part number or acknowledging the upgrade, the switch was re-designed. This action was likely the reason for the problem never being the subject of a recall.

Mary was heavily criticised at a congressional hearing for apparently not knowing about this upgrade. Senator Barbara Boxer noted that: ‘Something is very strange that such a top employee would know nothing of this.’ Mary’s defence was that, with more than 320,000 employees and over 30,000 people in Product Development, GM was a mammoth organisation – and communications were not always at their best. Also, no CEO can know every detail of every component – and teams of managers and technicians are paid to sort out things at this level. Sergio Marchionne, CEO of GM rival Fiat Chrysler, heartily agreed with this view.

Thanks to the Global Financial Crisis, 2009 was a very difficult year and only President Obama’s actions to avoid closing GM’s doors for ever with the resultant huge fallout in terms of redundancies and down the line supplier heartaches saved the day. Two Washington-appointed men steered the company through bankruptcy. One of them, Henderson, made Barra Vice-President – Global Human Resources and she was able to put the round pegs into round holes successfully. In this role, she worked with Feinberg (the other Washington-appointed man) to get a pay structure that – amongst other things – would restrict the salaries of the top 25 executives.

A flexible approach

Mary had proved to be a very effective negotiator and this was a tough call, but she was complimented for her flexible approach. While yet another CEO came and went, Barra’s predecessor Dan Akerson began to rebuild the business. He merged Product Development and Purchasing under her to streamline costs. He has been quoted as saying ‘she brought order to chaos.’ She cut a layer of management and gave Chief Engineers more responsibility.

When Akerson departed in 2013, he is recorded as saying, ‘The fact that Mary is a woman is great. But she earned this job on the merits of her performance and her potential.’ And so Mary became CEO of GM. However, some observers have suggested that Akerson threw Mary to the wolves knowing that the ignition recall was just about to kick off. He rebuffs such a suggestion and adds: ‘The moment she became aware of the problem, as I would expect, she confronted it. She didn’t know about it. I bet my life on it.’

In the five years following the GM bankruptcy, the company went a long way towards putting the ship upright and this gave Mary a firm footing to start a proper re-build. Performance and investment in the company both improved dramatically and Chevrolet sold more vehicles than ever before.

Mary had to set up a global team that would work with others around the world. As we all know, car manufacturers now share platforms, engines and numerous components on a scale unthought of in earlier decades.

Mary is still GM’s CEO. As many have experienced in life, it takes a crisis to shake things up and instigate the ‘new order’. In GM’s case the crisis was a disaster – particularly so for some individuals and their families. However, without some sort of a ‘shake-up’, GM would probably not be with us at all – and, at the helm, we have a very special high performer.

Mary T Barra with Corvette.


  1. She will always be remembered, rightly or wrongly, as the person who closed Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn and GM’s talented Australian outpost, Holden. As well as the person who severed nearly 100 years of history in Europe with Opel and Vauxhall, by selling GME to PSA.
    That time might have been better spent re-organising GM’s internal accounting procedures seemed a little more obvious following Opel/Vauxhall’s immediate return to profit under it’s new owners, unburdened by the internal paperwok that ensured GM’s non USA outposts always absorbed more than their fair share of costs.

    • If she “will always be remembered” for the closures you list, it’s most definitely wrongly.

      The article states that she got her first job in senior management in 1999. It cannot have been her decision to close Oldsmobile – an entire division – a year later!

      The closure of Olds – as well as Pontiac after bankruptcy – was a very belated recognition that the Sloan ladder was obsolete. Saturn, also a casualty of the bankruptcy, was a colossal money sink and should never have been set up in the first place.

      The decision to close Holden (2013) preceded her appointment as CEO (2014), but she was at least in charge when it was implemented. But what else was there to do? Ford and Toyota were also closing down in Australia. As a result, the whole network of component suppliers was disappearing. The car industry in Australia has gone. It is not viable. And after stopping production, is it really so bad that GM doesn’t even stick “Holden” badges on its cars anymore?

  2. The Australian motor industry was doomed from the moment that the country’s iron ore exports to China got so large, and the Free Trade Agreement with Thailand was signed, but with government assistance the industry could have been saved. But like Fokker in Holland and the debacle that was British industry, people seem to think that economies can exist on shuffling papers and selling coffee, not on manufacturing, and adding value to commodities. Not a mistake Thailand and China make. I note that your comment doesn’t address the fate of GM Europe. Mary Barra may not have been involved directly in those decisions but she is emblematic of and derived from the entire school of management that did.

  3. GM seemed paint themselves into several corners at once in the 1990s & needed a lot of effort to get out of them.

    Having three mid range divisions was an odd choice for GM considering the other two of the “Big 3” had slimmed down this market sector decades before, and Ford has since dropped Mercury.

    Saturn always seemed like a cuckoo in the GM nest, being a lot more autonomous division making European sized cars.

    The Australian car industry only really existed because of protectionist tariffs once shipping methods improved. With things like farming & mining being a much bigger part of their economy it wasn’t a big loss for most non-car buffs. The bizarre Button Plan had failed to improve the efficiencies in the Australian car industry, even if it created some odd badge engineered models.

  4. The article seems to ignore the reality, which is that General Motors is to all intents and purposes finished as a multi-national motor manufacturer. It is very hard to see how it can possibly come back , its only surviving volume brand being essentially the perennially cheapest and nastiest of US product, Chevrolet .

  5. I would not want her job, Captain of a huge vessel sailing over rough oceans, with the holds full of ballast and low-profit cargo, and the bilge pumps running flat out to keep the ship afloat. GM sell millions of cars but their accounts show only just breaking even. Why bother?

      • “Ford have more or less given up on conventional cars”
        If the market dictates that it wants SUVs from the mainstream and “premium” saloons from the Germans then who are we to disagree. But.. the Germans also produce SUVs and BEVs. Eventually the market will gravitate towards quality (perceived) German products and value based Chinese ones.
        We live in interesting times……….

        • There is Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, all more than capable of satisfying USA consumers, the idea of the Germans as the Master race in motor vehicles throughout the world is a European myth

  6. To be trueful, in America saloons are either sold in numbers by the Germans, japanese or Korean firms, while the US brands have seen their sales drop at an alarming rate. This was due to some really bad quality issues in the 90s, as well as offering old tech and warmed over designs against the torrent of the opposition. In addition the US market is very different to elsewhere, as pickups outsell cars because they are are taxed differently and therefore cost less. The Ford F150 is americas best selling vehicle because of this, which explains Ford’s idea. However with tougher environmental rules likely to come into play stateside, was this a good idea?

    • Similarly Chrysler were only making money on pick-ups before the Fiat takeover. As they count as commercial vehicles in many states they don’t need to comply with so many regulations.

      I remember there were a few American cars in the 1990s that had safety problems which the manufacturers tried to hush up rather than deal with by having a recall.

  7. I do like that she refuted the idea that she’d have had any clue about the ignition switch problem (as backed-up by Fiat’s CEO). There is no way a CEO would have been informed about a component redesign of this type and anyone’s ascertion that she should have known, is naive at best.

  8. To understand the USA motor vehicle manufacturers obsession with building and selling crude gas-guzzler “Trucks” such as the Ford F150, and not passenger cars, Google “Chicken Tax”. the Chicken Tax of 25% is the anti-competition statute protecting USA car makers from imported Truck/SUV vehicles, and the abandonment of low-profit passenger cars to the more efficient Japanese makers

  9. Love the informed comments from you all and I do take Christopher’s point – the article does not deal with the global car market and GM’s position in it. My only defence is that in all of the series (both on men and women) I’ve tried to concentrate on the ‘greatness’ or value of the individual. Obviously subjective and they must be intertwined but nevertheless it really is about the person not the company.

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