DETROIT — When Mary Barra was appointed as General Motors’ global product chief, she quickly encountered a legacy of GM’s legendary bureaucracy: three lead engineers for every new product.
The sluggish arrangement spawned fiefdoms, rivalries and poor communication.
Barra killed the practice, opting for one engineer to lead every new car and truck.
Imbued with a distaste for bureaucracy and a deep comprehension of GM’s inefficient crevices, Barra will ascend to the automaker’s CEO job Jan. 15 when Dan Akerson exits to help his wife fight cancer.
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“It wasn’t that we really reduced engineers, we reduced leadership structure,” Barra, a 51-year-old Michigan native, said in a January interview. “We didn’t have clear accountability. It was slowing down progress, and it also wasn’t efficient.
Her ascension to the CEO position makes her the first woman to lead a major automaker. She’ll lead the second-largest automaker in the world with the highest market share in the U.S. and China, a bevy of recent product accolades and more than a decade of losses in Europe.
She’ll face pressure to accelerate GM’s progress — including recent gains such as a return to an investment-grade credit rating, an all-time high stock price and 15 consecutive quarters of profitability — and continue shaking up the culture.
Barra impressed her peers by revamping GM’s human-resources department without any human-resources experience. Former GM CEO Ed Whitacre made the unusual appointment in 2009, making Barra vice president of HR.
She embraced the role, famously eliminating GM’s dress code in a corporate-culture shake-up before becoming GM’s senior vice president of global product development in January 2011.
Now you can walk through the halls of GM and see engineers, designers and even finance guys without suits and ties. It was a small change with symbolic implications: GM isn’t a stuffy place to work.
That’s a message she wants to relay to young people through a focus on science, technology, engineering and math. In April, Barra visited Detroit’s Bates Academy to participate in a paper-sailboat-making competition with third-graders through the Society of Automotive Engineers International’s “A World In Motion” program.
Crouched on the floor next to a 9-year-old, blue-scrunchie-sporting Laylah Baker, Barra lost Round 1 in the sailboat-making extravaganza.
But she was not to be denied. Before Round 2, she made what she slyly described as “a few engineering modifications” — and her sailboat swept along the dusty floor to victory.
Her visit was aimed at encouraging kids to consider engineering as a career — and particularly automotive engineering in a world where GM is competing with Facebook, Amazon.com and Disney’s Pixar for the brightest software minds.
“Literally, there are people choosing, ‘Do I want to go work for General Motors and design vehicles, or do I want to go do movies?’ ” Barra said.
Recruiting the best talent will help GM build the best products — and that’s been Barra’s focus for nearly three years.
As a product champion, Barra smiles widely when she discusses the automaker’s introduction of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and other vehicles that were developed in part under her tenure.
Her high-school age son was enraptured when the vehicle came out — but she was not about to pull any strings to get him a Stingray.
“That’s probably not the car he’ll be driving for a while,” she joked at the time in an interview.
The Stingray was a home run, but GM has had some duds, too. The redesigned Chevrolet Malibu flopped almost immediately when it was introduced in 2012, forcing GM to rush an upgraded version into production.
The company successfully launched all-new full-size trucks, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, this year. Barra has placed a renewed emphasis on quality improvements and customer retention.
“She’s well-informed to make good decisions because she can look at it from the angle of what’s best for marketing, what’s best for product development, what’s best for engineering and design. She understands all of that well,” said Morningstar analyst David Whiston.
After growing up in Waterford, Mich., Barra enrolled at General Motors Institute, now called Kettering University, and soon after joined GM as a co-op student in the Pontiac Motor Division in 1980. She earned an electrical-engineering degree from GMI, then quickly ascended through the ranks of GM. She later earned a master’s in business administration from Stanford University.
Barra was believed to be one of four potential successors for Akerson, including GM North America President Mark Reuss, Chief Financial Officer Dan Ammann and Vice Chairman Steve Girsky.
Akerson said Barra’s appointment made him “proud.”
“I don’t want to get too corny here,” he said. “It was like watching your daughter graduate from college. I’m very confident she’ll do a good job.”