GM CEO says she's tougher, not meaner after first year

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra on Wednesday said she has gotten tougher as CEO, but not meaner, and she sees herself as one of many agents of change at the Detroit automaker.

In a wide-ranging conversation that covered GM's culture, her support of the move of Cadillac's headquarters to New York City, her Detroit rock star-like fame, Barra opened up to Automotive News Editor-in-Chief Keith Crain about her first year leading the U.S.'s largest automaker.

No, she said during the 50 minute interview, she wouldn't describe the last year as fun, but she told Crain at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit that she and the company learned a lot and she loves the business — and cars.

Barra took over for the Detroit automaker on Jan. 15, 2014, to instant fanfare as the industry's first female CEO. She was hounded by press during media days at the 2014 North American International Auto Show. But her year quickly took a turn in February, when GM announced the first recall related to faulty ignition switches that ballooned into a crisis now tied to 45 deaths.

GM also faces investigations by the U.S. Justice Department, state attorneys general and numerous lawsuits.

She said GM has dealt with the ignition switch problem.

Barra said it will take time to change behavior and culture at GM but the company has changed its compensation program and the way it does performance reviews, for example.

"My sense is you're in a row boat trying to move the Queen Mary," Crain told her of driving change into GM's 200,000-plus employee organization.

She said people will know GM is changing by its products and by sales and financials.

"Hold us accountable for doing what we say we're going to do with results," she said. "We've got to earn that."

Crain tried a few times to find out if GM will build the Buick Avenir concept or Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle the company showed at this year's auto show, but she wouldn't say.

Barra said she was surprised by the attention she got for becoming the first female CEO in the auto industry and that some people didn't realize "how progressive this industry is." She said she misses, at times, the anonymity she had before becoming CEO but said she's been pleasantly surprised by the support she's gotten from the community and strangers.

"The great thing about that is people come up to you at Target, when you're kind of like, it's a Saturday morning and you put a baseball cap on, and you really would prefer people wouldn't recognize you," she said. "But they come to you and say, 'Hey, I'm really excited about that vehicle,' or 'Great job,' or they're really supportive of what you've done."

When she's not in the office, she gets to as many hockey games as she can to see her son play goalie as a high school senior and she does her own grocery shopping.

"It's me and the cart," she said.

Barra said she pulls on her experience in four previous jobs at GM: executive assistant, plant manager, head of product development and head of human resources. When asked if she fires people, she responded: "Many."

As for the cheaper gas prices lately, she said $2 gas presents opportunities and challenges for the company but it doesn't change the business plan at all.

"We don't know how long it's going to last," she said.

Earlier in the day, Barra and management told investors that the automaker expects 2015 profits to improve over 2014 results. GM's 2014 earnings won't be released until Feb. 4.