GM CEO to Time: Internal report 'saddest' day of career

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — General Motors CEO Mary Barra says the Detroit automaker has implemented about 90 percent of the recommendations in a devastating internal report into the company's ignition switch crisis and is reviewing its systems structure.

In a cover story in Time magazine, Barra opens up about one of the worst periods in the Detroit automaker's history. The company has recalled more than 26 million vehicles this year including 2.6 million older Cobalt, Ion and other cars linked to at least 21 deaths and 54 crashes.

"The day I read (the Valukas report) was one of the saddest days of my career," Barra told Time. "The most frightening part to me was that (the report) said everything that everyone's criticized us about (over the years).

"It was like a punch."

Barra fired 15 people — including a company vice president — and disciplined five after the internal report into the company's ignition switch recall found a "pattern of incompetence and neglect" led to the delay of the recall by nearly a deacde. GM paid a record setting $35 million fine to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in May and agreed to up to three years of close scrutiny by NHTSA. The Justice Department, Securities and Exchange Commission and 45 state attorneys general are investigating.

It's the latest in a series of national media interviews Barra has done in the wake of four appearances before Congress this year. She is making more public speeches — including two in New York this week — and is making more as she boosts her public profile.

The article says GM engineers Kevin Wong "has been tasked with doing a root-to-branch evaluation of the systems structure." GM product chief Mark Reuss is "leading a team that is talking to leaders in the aerospace industry, the Navy and NASA about how to manage organizational complexity and avoid catastrophic failures."

GM had held discussions with NASA earlier this year about assisting the company with its ignition switch investigation, but NASA declined to take part.

She told workers at a employee meeting that GM has to get it right after the recall crisis. "We won't get a second chance," Barra said, according to Time.

For the most part in recent media appearances, Barra has stuck closely to a series of similar answers.

She said GM didn't have the right "processes."

"We didn't have world-class processes," Barra said. "But then again, we also didn't have world-class behaviors of 'Hey, pick up the phone, make sure something's done."

She also talks about the need for worklife balance.

"Any company will take 24/7 from you and not even feel bad," Barra, a 34-year veteran of GM, told Time. "You've just got to keep balancing, learning and adjusting, and kind of not sweat it."

Barra is reading former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's memoir "No Higher Honor."

"I find it fascinating because she shares so much about exactly what she was thinking" during various crises, Barra said.

At one point, the Time reporter asks Barra if she is wearing "Manolos."

She responds. "Yeah, I have a shoe thing," she said. "And they are really comfortable!"

Later, when Time tried to verify Barra's shoe brand, GM tells us that "Mary is a very private person and has requested that you don't name the brand of her shoes."