New CEO Barra a GM 'lifer' bent on tearing down walls

Sun Jan 12, 2014 1:06pm EST
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By Paul Lienert and Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - Mary Barra, the next CEO of General Motors Co (GM.N: Quote), sent a powerful message to colleagues last year when she challenged about 250 designers and engineers at GM's Vehicle Engineering Center - to a paper sailboat race.

"She wanted them to have fun at a highly stressful time, but also encourage teamwork and collaboration ... to show that's how we run our business on a global basis," said John Calabrese, GM's vice president of global engineering.

Patterned after an April event that Barra and team members staged with third graders at Detroit's Bates Academy, the internal "skimmer" competition brought together teams of executives vying for such awards as fastest boat, most creative design, best logo and most over-budget.

In deceptively simple fashion, the sailboat race addressed perhaps the biggest concern to Wall Street analysts and investors and the major challenge facing the 52-year-old electrical engineer and Stanford MBA: How to continue breaking down silos and walls within the U.S. automaker's historically dysfunctional and disconnected corporate culture and remake GM into a more collaborative and customer-centric enterprise.

When she takes the reins from Dan Akerson on Wednesday, Barra, a Detroit-area native and GM "lifer" who started as an 18-year-old intern in 1980, also will be expected to tackle some unfinished business. Among her tasks: Overhauling GM's global brands, reviving and returning to profitability the company's battered European operations, and fattening up profit margins, which lag those of major competitors.


Barra's promotion has drawn mixed reviews outside Detroit, where she is little-known. Even Wall Street has expressed some skepticism.

"Her reputation is (as) a bit of a lightweight," said an investment banker who has worked with GM. "She has not distinguished herself in any heavy-duty operating role. She's sort of a blank slate."   Continued...

Mary Barra, Senior VP of General Motors Global Product Development, speaks near a 2014 Corvette Stingray at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 14, 2013. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook