Word that Alan Mulally will remain Ford Motor Co.’s CEO through this year and not bolt for Microsoft Corp. offers the makings of a delicious, if unofficial, contest at next week’s North American International Auto Show.
Not that anyone prefers to acknowledge it. But Detroit’s Hot Thing, now in his seventh year leading the resurrection of an American industrial icon marked by the Blue Oval, has fresh competition from the Motor City’s newest new thing: General Motors Co.’s CEO-elect Mary Barra.
In an industry that runs as much on personality and verve as it does metal, rubber and market share, the 52-year-old Barra represents the next turn of change for indigenous automakers whose brass long proved unable to embrace reality, competition, shifting demographics and the managerial chops of women.
Not anymore, as the clamor surrounding Barra’s appointment attests in the run-up to more than 5,000 journalists from around the world swarming the Detroit auto show at a refurbished Cobo Center. In one bold move, GM’s directors are theoretically positioning their new CEO to be Detroit’s newest star, a radical departure from the engineers and bean counters long associated with this town’s auto brass.
Chairman Dan Akerson acknowledged as much in a wide-ranging interview last month with The Detroit News. He called Barra “a transformative personality” and “a change agent” whose tenure, assuming it is successful, could help to fundamentally recast the image of a company that wouldn’t exist but for the help of American taxpayers.
I know, like the U.S. president awarded the Nobel Peace Prize barely months into office, she hasn’t “done anything.” She didn’t lead a global restructuring that sold or killed six brands, closed plants, eliminated tens of thousands of jobs; she didn’t reach a landmark understanding with the United Auto Workers to bring work home, or preside over an earnings explosion.
She didn’t lead Boeing Co.’s commercial aviation division through the dark years following the September 11 terrorist attacks; didn’t simplify a complex turnaround plan into four points on a pocket card; didn’t move quickly enough to secure the $23 billion “home improvement loan” that financed Ford’s rescue.
But Mulally, 68, did. Now? A miracle worker whose miracles are well-established. Taken for granted until a confused Microsoft came looking for a new boss. A turnaround guru whose tenure atop Ford offers a trove of how-to-do-it for CEOs leading companies addled by dysfunction, infighting and entitlement.
He showed not only how it could be done. He showed that it could be done, that the lethargy and self-satisfaction that delivered Detroit to its real reckoning a little more than five years ago could be relegated to the past. In its place stands a leaner, globally competitive automaker managing the world as it is, not as Dearborn wants it to be, with cold-eyed reality.
The Mulally standard is Detroit’s new standard. It’s the expectation Wall Street should now have for Barra’s GM and Sergio Marchionne’s Chrysler Group LLC, soon a wholly owned subsidiary of Italy’s Fiat SpA. It’s the measure competitors will take of Barra, a GM veteran who survived the meltdown of ’08 and made it to the top.
Not easy, that. Nor is being the first woman to head a global automaker. Accomplished or not, that alone is likely to give Barra the benefit of the doubt as she settles into new RenCen digs and begins making decisions that will define her leadership.
Add products launched on her watch — the Cadillac ATS, XTS and next-gen CTS, the Chevrolet Corvette and Impala, new full-size pickups and a global subcompact under development — and Barra could help change even more the conversation about GM.
Emphasis on “could,” provided the results approximate the lofty expectations it would be wise to manage. But it won’t be easy; nor will it be easy to resist the temptation to let media-fueled hype outrun the messier facts of reality.
In the early going, the usual suspects in the business press, Detroit’s dailies included, are more likely to be crowded out by network news divisions lobbying for a “get.” Books already are being pitched on a CEO not yet in the job, much less steeled by her first earnings call, inevitable mistakes or material accomplishments. And Cosmo wants Barra on its cover, a double-edged media sword if ever there is one.
Yes, the first auto engineer to head GM since Bob Stempel more than a generation ago becomes CEO on Wednesday. She’s Detroit’s new-new thing, the next chapter in the post-meltdown book that ol’ Mulally wrote.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday.