Howes: Legacy leaves GM's Reuss with something to prove

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News


General Motors Co. President Mark Reuss, appointed this month, is the second in as many generations of Reusses to occupy the senior job.

Twenty-seven years and two reckonings later, General Motors Co. once again has a president named Reuss.

The new one’s name is Mark, a one-time baseball player, Vanderbilt grad and undeniable gear-head familiar to GM folks inside and out. He’s spent the sum total of his career there, essentially preparing for the job (or title, anyway) that his father, Lloyd, held before his unceremonious ouster in GM’s boardroom coup of 1992.

The automaker is a vastly different company today, and not just legally. It books less in annual revenue than rival Ford Motor Co. It has fewer brands than the old GM. It operates in fewer regions, runs fewer plants, employs a lot fewer people and bears the dubious distinction of being the largest automaker in history to go bankrupt.

Reuss, a “GM guy” to his core, witnessed that broad arc of automotive decline, including the ignominious end to his father’s career. He ran the automaker's performance division, served as managing director of GM Australia and New Zealand, oversaw marketing, sales and manufacturing as president of GM North America, and spent the past few years running the automaker's vast product development and purchasing organization.

The new gig is something altogether different. The last guy to hold the title of president, Dan Ammann, turned out to be CEO Mary Barra's Change-Agent-in-Chief. He's the one who led a global repositioning that saw GM bolt Europe after 90 years, restructure its operations in South Korea, end production in Australia, and exit Russia, India and South Africa.

It's a remarkable, if incomplete, transformation for an American automaker that spent decades trying — and mostly failing — to be all things to all people in just about any region with people and money to spend on personal transportation. But anyone who's paying attention knows that transformation isn't over.

Reuss has a different assignment, if the same title. With Ammann now based in San Francisco as CEO of GM Cruise LLC, the automaker's autonomous-driving unit, Reuss is charged with quickening the product development process, elevating electrification and autonomous-driving capability, and energizing Cadillac as a global luxury brand and the leading edge of GM's electric-vehicle push.

Expect something else much less said, but nonetheless there: a chance for Reuss to both repair and build a two-generation family legacy atop what had long been Detroit's No. 1 automaker. Reuss, 55, didn't flinch when asked about the symbolism, the familial circle he could trace with the intent of producing different results. 

Is the new job also, in some small way, a chance for the son to rehabilitate a family reputation inside GM? “Very true, very true,” he told The Detroit News at the North American International Auto Show. “ “I won’t waste that opportunity, put it that way. I will leave nothing on the table.”

None of GM's top leaders should. Most of them, including Reuss and Barra, lived the humiliation of begging Congress for bailouts, the demands of President Obama's auto task force for deeper cuts, the second-guessing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy financed by U.S. taxpayers, not traditional debtor-in-possession lenders.

"I can't bear to have a legacy of really bad things because we didn't make the right calls," Reuss said. "We're paid to make sure that never happens."

They have something to prove, as the perpetual chips on GM's executive shoulders attest. They're moving to cut most of their sedans, to close five North American plants, to cut more than 8,000 salaried jobs despite booking roughly $1 billion a month in pre-tax operating profit in North America — unapologetically, despite political and union backlash.

The decisions are jarringly discordant to folks accustomed to such things when the market is in free-fall, not hovering near record levels. But Barra, Reuss and the rest are the "they" they'd talk quietly about a decade ago, those top leaders who presided nobly over decline that morphed into bankruptcy.

"They've gotten beaten up on the plant closings, but it was the right thing to do," said David Cole, the chairman emeritus of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research whose father, Ed Cole, also served as GM's president from 1967 to 1974. "If you're not looking ahead strategically, you could put yourself in a bind."

That's precisely what Barra, Reuss and the rest of GM's leadership team are determined to avoid. But it won't come without tough, often unpopular, decisions a president of General Motors is expected to make — whatever the family lineage.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.