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New GM chief keeps focus on cars

GM chief executive Mary Barra and Vice President Joe Biden check out a 2015 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 at the Detroit auto show.

New York Times

GM chief executive Mary Barra and Vice President Joe Biden check out a 2015 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 at the Detroit auto show.

DETROIT — No matter how much attention she draws as the auto industry's first female chief executive, Mary T. Barra is determined to keep the focus on cars and trucks at General Motors.

In her first extended public comments since taking over the top job at GM on Jan. 15, Barra last week vowed to accelerate its comeback from bankruptcy with improved products, better brands and consistently profitable operations around the world.

It is a tall order for a company that has only recently stabilized since its government bailout five years ago. But Barra is already putting her stamp on the nation's largest auto company.

In a two-day meeting this week with GM executives from around the world, the 52-year-old Barra crystallized the mission ahead of them.

"I told the team that there is no destination here, that this is a continuous improvement journey," she said in an interview. "Don't confuse progress with winning."

A trained engineer and former plant manager, Barra, who speaks in measured tones, brings a shop-floor attitude to the executive suite of a company that has historically drawn its leaders from the world of finance.

And while she gracefully handled the crush of camera crews capturing her every move at the recent Detroit auto show, Barra has gone to great lengths to keep the focus on GM's competitive position rather than her newfound celebrity.

"Even when you're leading in a segment, that's only for the moment," she said. "It's a very competitive business and others are looking to surpass you, so you have to continually keep raising the bar for yourself."

The automotive world has watched intently as GM — known for so long as the most staid and conservative of the American carmakers — has basked in the aura of Barra's ascension.

But the sudden focus on Barra has raised questions about whether a tried-and-true GM employee of 33 years can, in fact, drive the company to new heights.

"I think people are generally in a state of uncertainty," said David E. Cole, former chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. "Mary knows the company and has a lot of history with the people, but she is facing enormous expectations."

Her low-key, inclusive style is a far cry from the personality of her predecessor, Daniel F. Akerson, who was appointed to the GM board by the government and spent much of his four years as chief executive cajoling the company to shed its hidebound culture.

In contrast, Barra exudes the optimism of a chief executive blessed with a strong balance sheet, solid positions in critical markets like North America and China, and an employee base energized by the federal government's sale last year of the last of its GM stock.

"If you went back five to 10 years, the team just didn't have the ability to do great products," she said. "Now we have enabled them and given them the framework to make great cars and trucks."

As the head of global product development before becoming chief executive, Barra played an integral role in introducing small, fuel-efficient cars like the Chevrolet Sonic and Spark, as well as new versions of its stalwart pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.

Yet GM has struggled to gain any appreciable share in the hard-fought American market, remaining at about 18 percent. The company's sales in the United States increased last year by 7.3 percent, which trailed slightly the industry's overall growth of 7.6 percent.

And the international picture is still muddied by continued losses in its European division and stagnant profits in Asia.

Barra is hardly shifting the strategy advocated by Akerson, which included a greater emphasis on building the Cadillac luxury brand and using GM's global scale to produce products that can be sold successfully in every region of the world.

New GM chief keeps focus on cars 01/24/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 24, 2014 6:16pm]

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