Mary T. Barra
SVP, Global Product Development (CEO as of Jan 15, 2014)
General Motors Corporation
Appointed Senior Vice President, Global Product Development, for General Motors Corporation in 2011, Barra has since been the carmaker's highest-ranking female employee. As the new CEO designate, she will become the company's highest ranking employee, period, when she takes over as CEO of General Motors in January 14, 2013. Until then, she will continue to oversee 36,000 people and lead the design, engineering and quality of the automaker's 11 global brands. Barra began her career with GM in 1980 as a General Motors Institute (Kettering University) Co-op Student at the Pontiac Motor Division. She steadily worked her way up the corporate ranks, holding Vice President positions in Global Human Resources and Global Manufacturing Engineering and also spent three years as Executive Assistant to former CEO Jack Smith. Current GM CEO Dan Akerson, who appointed her head of Global Product Development in early 2011, named her as a possible successor in May 2012, saying, "I wouldn't be surprised." Later in 2012 he told Fortune that Barra is "a strong leader and change agent who knows the business inside and out - from the plant floor and the design studio to the boardroom." GM's fortunes still depend largely on sales of trucks in the U.S. and its profitable Chinese operations. According to a December 2013 USA Today article, Barra has "...blue-collar Michigan roots as the daughter of a GM tool-and-die maker."
Personal Attributes and Interests
- Barra grew up in the Detroit suburbs. She's the real deal, very down to earth," Dave Cole, chairman of Auto Harvest, a non-profit devoted to innovation, told USA Today in December 2013. "She was not raised in an aristocracy."
- Her father was a die maker at Pontiac for 39 years.
- Barra was about 10 when she first fell in love with a car, according to Stanford Magazine: "It was a red Chevy Camaro convertible, late-'60s vintage, driven by her older cousin...'It was just a beautiful, beautiful vehicle,' she says at her office high in the tower that houses General Motors' corporate headquarters. 'The first vehicle where I went, 'Wow, that is cool.'' Both she and her husband are still Camaro buffs, according to GM. "Between the two of them, they've probably owned every generation of Camaro," a spokesperson says. "She's loved them since she began to drive, since she first got her license."
- Her first car was a more practical Chevy Chevette.
- When Barra went to work fulltime as a Senior Engineer in the Pontiac Fiero plant in the late 1980s, she quickly came to the attention of plant manager Tim Lee, now GM's head of International Operations and Global Manufacturing. "I knew early on that she would do well," Lee told Fortune in December 2012. "She was determined, confident and passionate, and these traits continue to define her and drive her."
- Quickly tabbed as a high-potential executive, Barra won a GM fellowship to attend Stanford Business School and graduated in the top 10% of her class.
- In the late 1990s, while working as Executive Assistant to CEO Jack Smith and Vice Chairman Harry Pearce, Barra got a front row seat as GM moved into China, where it now sells more cars than in North America. With their recommendation, she was sent to run internal communications, a corporate backwater that had turned critical following a nasty 50-day UAW strike. Barra hired, trained, and led a network of specialists to improve communications throughout the company, especially with union workers.
- As Manager of the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, which had a history of troubled automation, Barra managed to win quality awards, make the workplace safer, and successfully launch two new vehicles, the Cadillac DTS and Buick LeSabre.
- Barra is married. She and her husband, Tony Barra, have two children, a son and a daughter.
- She lives in Novi, Michigan.
- Barra came in at No. 41 on Forbes magazine’s “World’s Most Powerful women” list for 2013.
- The SAE Foundation awarded Barra its Industry Leadership Award in May 2013.
- She was one of Diversity Journal’s 2011 “Women Worth Watching.”
- She spends much of her free time attending her kids’ soccer games and various other activities.
- She supports many organizations that are trying to find a cure for cancer.
- Barra started at GM at age 18 to help pay tuition while she sought an electrical engineering degree.
- She told Forbes that being a car gal rather than car guy has never stood in her way. "It's about no-kidding results," she said.
- Barra said she enjoys reading "everything I can find about gluten-free diets, as well as car magazines and books on leadership."
- Her philosophy, she told Diversity Journal, is, "high integrity is the foundation for everything."
- In an essay, she wrote, "I want everyone feeling like their voice can and will be heard, whether you’re a designer in Detroit or an engineer in Shanghai. Diversity of thought and experience is a competitive advantage. And once we decide on a course of action, we move forward together and get the job done quickly and efficiently.... I take special interest in young professionals trying to break new ground within GM and the auto industry. There were many men and women who helped me along my way. This is my way of giving back."
- Being honored by Diversity Journal, she wrote, "is very meaningful to me because it reminds me of what my parents used to tell me and my brother: 'Work hard, treat people the way you want to be treated and it will all work out.' It’s been a great philosophy to live by in both my personal and professional life. Two other big markers for me are integrity and character. These are qualities I expect of myself and look for in others. This means always doing the right thing even when no one is watching, even when it is hard. With integrity and character as a foundation, you and your teams can accomplish great things."
- Barra wrote that she is often asked "how I was able to survive in a male-dominated industry like automotive. While that may be a fair assessment of the business, it’s not how I have approached what has been a fascinating journey. I always tried to learn as much as possible from those I worked with and for, while also contributing as much as possible on my own. I never expected to be given anything except an opportunity. After that, it was up to me to prove my value. I also always focused on the job at hand and didn’t worry about what was next, remembering the advice my parents gave me."
- Barra, according to a December 2012 Fortune story, is “a certified glass-ceiling breaker. In Detroit's macho culture, no job more reeks of testosterone than product development - creating and engineering new models. It requires the willingness to risk billions of dollars, the tenacity to direct thousands of engineers, and the guts to make hundreds of decisions - some while driving at high speeds around a test track."
- According to a 2012 story in Stanford Magazine, Barra's day-to-day car (at the time) is a Cadillac Escalade. , "Barra chose [the car] largely for its carrying capacity; her 14-year-old son was until recently a hockey goalie, a job that comes with a lot of gear. Barra seldom has time to take the Escalade out for a cruise, but she often looks forward to her 35-minute commute. Really. 'There's days when, after a long day of work,' she said, 'you get into your car, and you're like, this is fun. I get to drive this home.'"
- She's plainspoken and pleasant but tough, say insiders. Former GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz described her as the classic "iron fist in the velvet glove." He told ABC News, "She always looks nice."
- New role: Following CEO Dan Akerson’s decision to retire from the company on January 15, 2014, General Motors named Barra as the next CEO of the company. Barra will also join the GM Board. “With an amazing portfolio of cars and trucks and the strongest financial performance in our recent history, this is an exciting time at today’s GM,” said Barra. “I’m honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed.”
- First female CEO in Detroit: In December 2013 CNN Money reported that while GM is stronger in many ways as Barra takes the reins, but still has significant weaknesses. Losses in Europe continue to mount, as GM fights to hold on to gains in China, where competition from a resurgent Volkswagen is heated. The company also needs to reestablish itself as a technology leader after spending more than a billion dollars on the Chevrolet Volt, which has been deemed unsuccessful. Barra's engineering background should be a plus as she leads the rebuilding of GM's product portfolio, which includes such recent hits as the new Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Impala, and Corvette. And her earlier stint as head of human resources gives her rare and valuable insights into GM's culture. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Barra is the living embodiment of Teddy Roosevelt's admonition to speak softly but carry a big stick. With a keen eye for spotting incidents of corporate miguidedness, she quickly corrects issues "with a steely resolve delivered with a soft message." Her biggest challenge is to win over surviving GM traditionalists, the "car guys".
- Focus on tackling pickup truck market: As GM aims to challenge Toyota’s midsize pickups, in November 2013 the company introduced its Chevrolet Colorado that is designed to unseat Toyota and its Tacoma pickup, WSJ reported. The Colorado along with the GMC Canyon, which will be introduced in January 2014, will roll into showrooms in the third quarter of 2014. "We believe we can win customers and grow the segment," Chevrolet Global Chief Alan Batey said. "The segment hasn't grown because there wasn't another choice. Now there is. This will be a workhorse but also offer refinement in the interior." It is a bold statement and a big gamble for GM given that the company invested more than $500 million to design the Colorado. Batey contends the market shrank due to the recession and the experimentation by drivers who thought they could get the same functionality from SUVs. Batey said the company believes there is a significant market for these trucks. "There are just some people out there that don't want or don't need a full-size pickup truck," he said. "This will attract those who are looking for something to haul their bicycles to the guy who is running a landscaping business." A diesel-engine version will be added in 2015.
- Boost China's luxury-car market: In May 2013 WSJ reported that General Motors’s Shanghai GM joint venture received permission from Chinese authorities to build an eight billion yuan ($1.3 billion) factory to manufacture its Cadillac brand, boosting the company's ambition of becoming a larger player in China's booming luxury-car market. "We've decided that the luxury market is going to grow and we want a bigger share," said Dayna Hart, a spokeswoman for GM in China. In April 2013, GM said its Chinese joint ventures would invest $11 billion by 2016 to expand their combined production capacity by 30% to five million vehicles a year. The Cadillac factory would be able to produce up to 150,000 vehicles a year when completed. Construction is scheduled to begin in June 2013. The facility will be built in Jinqiao, Shanghai, where Shanghai GM and GM China's headquarters are located. GM said it would bring Cadillac's global portfolio to China by adding one model per year through 2016. In 2012, Cadillac sold just 30,000 vehicles in China and it aimed to increase Cadillac sales to 100,000 a year by 2016. GM said its longer-term goal is to take Cadillac's share of the luxury-car market to 10% by 2020.
- Collaboration on new transmissions: In April 2013 WSJ reported that General Motors and Ford Motor teamed up to produce two new transmissions as they look to keep in step with their rivals both foreign and closer to home. The companies agreed to jointly develop a nine-speed and a 10-speed automatic transmission for use in their portfolios of cars, crossovers, sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks. The transmissions are expected to improve vehicle performance and increase fuel economy. The journal stated that engineering teams from Ford and GM have already started initial design work on these new transmissions. While the basic structures of the transmission will be shared, each company will use their own software to ensure the transmissions fit with the vehicles in their different brands.
- Invest in Opel through 2016: General Motors will invest $5.2 billion in its German division, Opel, over the next four years to support new model launches, renewing a commitment to its ailing European brand, reported Detroit Free Press in April 2013. Akerson, speaking to reporters in Germany, reaffirmed the company’s belief that it can’t afford to part with Opel, which some analysts have suggested is the best solution. Akerson said the investment would help it increase market share by funding the development and launch of 23 new models and 13 new engines through 2016. "We are more convinced than ever that GM must have a strong and successful presence throughout Europe and especially here in Germany." Akerson said.
- Investment to increase tooling and production capacity: In April 2013 Fox Business reported that GM plans to invest nearly $332 million in four U.S. manufacturing sites to produce more fuel-efficient engines and transmissions. The company said the move, will boost production of a new Ecotec small gas engine, a new V6 engine, eight-speed transmission and tooling for an existing six-speed transmission. The company is also raising its powertrain investment in two Michigan plants by $46 million to support production of the new V6 engine. Toledo Plant will receive $55.7 million for the aforementioned 8-speed auto which will equip GM models by late 2016. The same facility will also work on improving the current 6-speed automatic. Work is under way on the eight-speed transmission in Toledo, though full-scale production won't begin for some time. GM officials announced that the next-generation 2014 Cadillac CTS will be the first GM product to receive an eight-speed transmission. That car initially will use an eight-speed that GM is purchasing from a separate supplier. The new engines are expected to offer improved fuel efficiency, higher quality and performance while reducing carbon dioxide emissions. “We are investing in technologies and manufacturing capabilities that produce high-quality, fuel-efficient vehicles and components for our customers,” the company said.
- Collaboration on new generation Vehicles: In February 2013 General Motors’ OnStar and AT&T entered into an agreement under which AT&T will wirelessly deliver an enhanced suite of safety, security, diagnostic and infotainment services to most Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles, beginning in 2014 in the United States and Canada. The multi-year agreement calls for AT&T to enable millions of GM cars, trucks and crossovers with 4G LTE mobile Internet access, providing the latest wireless technology to power GM’s safety and security services offered by OnStar, as well as a new suite of infotainment services like streaming audio, web access, applications, and even video for backseat passengers. AT&T will also enable GM’s in-vehicle Wi-Fi hotspots and voice calling services. “By adding a fast, reliable and built-in 4G LTE connection specifically designed for vehicles, we can drive innovation to enhance virtually every aspect of the driving and riding experience – from safety and diagnostics to entertainment to integration of emerging third-party applications,” an executive at the company said. “Through this built-in 4G LTE connection we have the opportunity to reinvent the mobile experience inside a vehicle.” GM’s move to integrate 4G LTE services in vehicles in the U.S. and Canada is part of a broader global strategy. Beyond 4G LTE connectivity, AT&T and GM will work together as part of a broad ecosystem focused on development of new communication applications for the vehicle designed to deliver more efficiency while also enhancing the driving and riding experience.
- Knothole Drives: Barra frequently is among a group of top GM executives and engineers who leave company headquarters in downtown Detroit on Friday afternoons and head for GM's proving grounds in Milford, Michigan for "knothole drives,” according to a December 2012 story in Fortune. Originated by Mark Reuss, head of GM's North American operations, the drives allow the executives to test new vehicles - along with their competitors - in successive stages of development and offer an assessment. The drives act like gates. Failure at any stage can cause a delay while refinements are made, as in the case of the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze, or outright cancelation. Plans to sell the 2010 Chevrolet Orlando in the United States, for example, were scrubbed after testers determined that the interior design of the manual-transmission version of the Korean-made van was unappealing.
- Typical Workday: When in Detroit, Barra's workday starts at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. and runs a good 12 hours. She drives herself in a Cadillac ATS to one of her two offices - a trip that takes nearly an hour since her family moved further west from Detroit in August 2012. Also in 2012, she spent about one week a month in Germany trying to straighten out Opel. GM has had a tortured relationship with its European affiliate, arranging to sell it in 2009 and then reversing its decision - largely at the urging of Vice Chairman Steve Girsky - only to see sales collapse along with the European economy. Girsky is now Opel's Chairman and Barra's likely competitor to succeed Akerson if he can turn Opel around, but Barra doesn't see any rivalry. "Opel is not a problem our team created, but it is ours to solve," she said. "That same could be said about everything Barra is trying to solve," Fortune reported in December 2012. "The stuff she is supposed to be doing were revealed as cost, quality and competitive issues in the late 1980s," said longtime GM watcher Maryann Keller. "It's now 25 years later, and Ford has figured it out and so has VW, but GM still needs an executive in charge of processes." What sets Barra apart from her predecessors, Fortune maintains, is that having risen far higher than she ever expected, she has nothing to prove - except to herself. "I'm an impatient person - it gnaws at me," she said.
- New Perspective: While old GM viewed the world through the prejudices of its middle-aged Midwestern engineers, Barra looks at new models through the eyes of the customer, Fortune observed in December 2012. She scrutinizes touch points like steering wheels and gearshifts to understand exactly how the driver interacts with the vehicle. She recently discovered that the seat controls on the 2013 Buick Verano, a compact sedan, were crowded and hard to use; there was no room to unspool the seat belt and adjust the seat. After analyzing the problem, she discovered the fault lay with individual engineers who each sought the best location for their particular part and didn't coordinate their efforts. Wrong call, she told them: "We compromise on our component for the benefit of the customer."
- "No More Crappy Cars:" A straight shooter, Barra says that the simple directive she gives to engineers and designers at the company is "no more crappy cars," according to GM Authority. “I think there was sometimes so many boundaries put on them [employees] that we didn’t give them a recipe for success. So now were saying no excuses, if its budget, if its resources, we have to do great cars, trucks and crossovers and it’s our job to enable you to do that,” she said, .
- Crucial Tests: Barra faces a pair of crucial tests in the next 12 months, according to a December 2012 story in Fortune. First, she is overseeing the launch of new versions of the full-size pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles that produce the vast bulk of GM's profits. Then she is leading the introduction of a new generation of small cars headed by the Chevrolet Cruze. Due in the fall of 2014, the compact Cruze will mark the debut of a global platform that will underpin 2.5 million sedans and crossovers annually, according to Reuters, including Chevrolet's Volt and Equinox and the Opel Astra. Now that 70% of GM's sales come from outside the U.S., its success is critical to GM's ability to remain competitive - and to Barra's chances at another promotion.
- Keeping the Customer Satisfied: As head of product development, Barra is trying to fix a process that has bedeviled GM since the beginning of the front-wheel-drive era 30 years ago: designing and engineering appealing new models on time and on budget. GM is way behind competitors. While Volkswagen skillfully reuses components in different brands, and Ford sells single designs in multiple markets, only 61% of GM's global production is made on common core architectures. It struggles to keep costs under control, eliminate expensive last-minute changes, and squeeze the most out of tight budgets. The latest example: In a rush to get its 2013 Malibu to dealers, and before Barra moved into product development, GM equipped the new car with an older mild hybrid powertrain that dampened sales.
- Eliminating Churn: At the top of Barra's to do-list is eliminating churn - the changes, delays, and cancellations that she figures cost GM $1 billion a year between 2006 and 2009, Fortune reported in December 2012. Vehicle engineering projects get delayed, or stopped and restarted - a ruinously expensive practice. Material and capital costs creep up and engineering workload fluctuates, creating inefficiency and rework. Technology innovations are made piecemeal, driving up costs. Delays mean that outgoing models stay on sale longer, leading to higher incentives and lower volumes. Barra is attacking the interruptions by reducing complexity, instilling discipline, and improving overall efficiency. She tries hard to get decisions made early in the development process and then stick to them later on. Her mantra: "A great idea late is not necessarily great because it puts the customer at risk." She was surprised recently to discover that her closer associates were mostly to blame. "I was confident all the churn was coming from marketing," she told an employee group recently. "I would have bet a paycheck on it. So we did an audit and all the changes came from [engineering]. So we faced the ugly truth." Barra is candid about how much work lies ahead: "On a scale of one to 10, we're at a three."
- Future Challenges: Barra has no hesitation ticking off a list of challenges GM - and every carmaker - must confront. Automakers must develop and master advanced propulsion systems, including electric-powered cars and trucks that can drive hundreds of miles without a charge and deliver handling and brawn on par with traditional gasoline engines. Engineers will need to safely integrate smart technology for drivers and "infotainment" for passengers. "The experience in the front seat is very different than the experience in the back seat," Barra said. "We have to understand that."
- Cars of the Future: Thanks to her son and her teenage daughter, Barra has been thinking lately about the challenge of designing cars for what's been dubbed the millennial generation, Stanford Magazine reported in 2012. "These consumers - the children of Baby Boomers - often have lived a life without tradeoffs," the story said. "Even more than their parents, they're not going to stomach the idea of sacrificing performance for economy. They're going to drive cars that, under proposed federal fuel regulations, will average 54.4 mpg, and they will expect those cars to corner well, go zero to 60 in a few ticks and incorporate all their favorite electronic toys. If Detroit won't sell them that, some foreign competitor will."
- Born on December 24, 1961.
- Barra earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Kettering University (General Motors Institute) in 1985.
- She earned an MBA from Stanford University's Graduate School of Business in 1990, two years after she received a GM Fellowship to the school.
- Barra began her career with General Motors in 1980 and has since held various positions of increasing responsibility, including the following:
- General Motors Institute (Kettering University) Co-op Student, Pontiac Motor Division
- Acting Superintendent, Maintenance & Tooling
- Senior Plant Engineer
- Various engineering and staff positions
- Executive Assistant to CEO Jack Smith and Vice Chairman Harry Pearce (1996 - 1999)
- Plant Manager, Detroit Hamtramck Assembly (2003)
- Executive Director, Competitive Operations Engineering
- Vice President, Global Manufacturing Engineering
- VP, Global Human Resources (2009 - 2011)
- Senior Vice President, Global Product Development (2011 - Present)
- Member, Executive Operations Committee (Present)
- In October 2013 WSJ reported that General Motors’ CEO Dan Akerson had orchestrated a four-way contest among the leading internal candidates for his chair, namely, Stephen Girsky, Daniel Ammann, Mark Reuss and Mary Barra. According to the story, "All are under 55, and thus could potentially lead the company for as long as a decade or more...Akerson made it plain in public and in private that he isn't satisfied with the pace of efforts to streamline GM's bureaucracy."
- According to a December 2012 Fortune article, Barra has been one of CEO Dan Akerson's key lieutenants in his effort to transform GM's "dysfunctional" culture. "She has begun rebuilding GM's outmoded and inefficient vehicle engineering process, accelerated efforts to develop global platforms, and taken a leading role in the struggle to save Opel...she scrapped a system that made three different executives responsible for each model's development and devised a more streamlined structure that puts a single chief executive in charge - a move that resulted in the elimination of 20 senior positions." According to the article, she strengthened her ties to Akerson in the process, putting her on the short list to succeed him,
Other Boards and Organizations
- Member, Board of Directors, General Dynamics (2011 - Present)
- Member, Board of Directors, Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute
- Member, Board of Trustees, Kettering University (General Motors Institute)
- Member, Supervisory Board, Adam Opel AG