Barra to stay the course at GM, but accelerate

| Zoom

DETROIT (AP) - General Motors Co.'s new CEO, Mary Barra, says she will largely keep in place the plans of her predecessor, from a restructuring in Europe to a focus on improving profit margins. But she hopes to accelerate that progress.

Barra held a 50-minute session a small group of reporters Thursday, her first interview becoming CEO on Jan. 15. Barra, 52, joked that the quiet conference room at GM's Detroit headquarters was a better place to talk than last week's Detroit auto show, where she was mobbed by hundreds of reporters.

Barra promised "no right or left turns" from the path laid out by former CEO Dan Akerson, who stepped down to care for his ailing wife. Under Akerson, GM rebounded from a 2009 trip to bankruptcy court. It became a publicly traded company again and reported a profit for 15 straight quarters, racking up almost $20 billion in net income thanks to stronger sales in the U.S. and China. GM restored its quarterly dividend on Akerson's last day.

"We're no longer just looking for viability, but we're looking for growth and leadership in the operations we have around the world," Barra said. "Now that some of those things have gotten the attention and are righted, let's take it and go."

Barra is going ahead with a European restructuring plan that will cost the automaker $1.1 billion this year. GM still expects to achieve 10-percent pretax profit margins in North America and break even in Europe by the middle of this decade, she said. It also wants to increase annual sales in China to 5 million by next year, up from 3.1 million last year.

Barra was Akerson's global product development chief and part of a team that helped him develop this strategy, so she's comfortable sticking with his goals.

"That's why we can keep the momentum going and look to accelerate it because there's no, `Hey, we've got to pause and look at this,'" she said.

Barra says GM _ which was the world's second-largest automaker by sales last year after Toyota, with 9.7 million vehicles sold _ is making strong products, but customers don't always know that. In Europe, for example, she's heard drivers express surprise at the quality of Opel cars when they finally drive them.

Among her priorities is making GM's brand messages clear and consistent worldwide. New vehicles like the Cadillac ATS sedan _ which goes on sale in China this year _ can help Cadillac become a global luxury brand. Chevrolet needs to show that it provides a lot of value to buyers. The new Chevrolet Corvette _ a relative bargain with a starting price of $52,000 _ is proof of that, she said.

Barra will ask employees to focus on innovative ideas that will add value to vehicles and delight customers, whether it's a new program to help dealers or an unexpected feature like the rain-sensing rear wiper on the Chevrolet Spark subcompact.

Barra, a 33-year veteran of the company, said she has always had a collaborative leadership style from her earliest days as an engineer at GM's plants. She said she works well with Dan Ammann, GM's new president, and Mark Reuss, GM's new head of global product development.

"I've always been focused on winning the hearts and minds of the employee base," she said.

Barra, the first female CEO of a major automaker, said she is happy if her appointment helps motivate others. But she doesn't give much thought to her gender.

"I never approached any job as, `Oh, I'm a woman doing this job,'" she said. "I want to be valued for leading the team and the results we achieve."

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Top Stories

  • Trial Beginning
    Twelve Seattle police officers will begin using new body-worn cameras next week

  • Week in Photos
    Penguins, cheetahs and Santa make it in this week's photos
ATTENTION COMMENTERS: We've changed our comments, but want to keep you in the conversation.
Please login below with your Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Disqus account. Existing MyNorthwest account holders will need to create a new Disqus account or use one of the social logins provided below. Thank you.
comments powered by Disqus
Sign up for breaking news e-mail alerts from
In the community
Do you know an exceptional citizen who has impacted and inspired others?
KIRO Radio and WSECU would like to recognize six oustanding citizens this year. Nominate them to be recognized and to receive a $2,000 charitable grant.