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GM's Mary Barra Steps Into The Spotlight

By Carol Cain 

Following bankruptcy and some brutal years, things are looking up at General Motors, which is great  news for Mary Barra. She's responsible for keeping her  foot on the pedal of the automaker's 11 global brands.

As GM's senior vice president of global product development she oversees a  $15 billion business with over 30,000 employees.

At 50, the married mother of two teens is the highest ranking woman at GM and the entire auto industry.

"I don't know that I'm a 'car gal,' but I know I love cars and trucks," Barra said when asked the question on "Michigan Matters."

She grew up in Waterford and came from a GM family. Her late father worked at Pontiac for 39 years. She has spent her entire career at the car maker.

In talking about GM products today, she mentioned the redesigned Chevrolet Impala unveiled at the recent New York Auto Show as one that would have more broad-based appeal.

Impala has  been around since the 1950s with most of its U.S. sales to government, fleet or car rental companies.  GM is hoping to entire more mainstream buyers with its new look.

And Buick is competing in a younger sphere too, with products like its  compact Verano.

Barra talked of the need for GM to keep in front of consumers in growing markets like China where the Beijing Auto Show is being held this week.

GM CEO Dan Akerson announced Monday the company would open another 600 dealerships in China this year to keep up with growing demand for Cadillacs, Buicks and more.

Barra was tapped by Akerson a year ago to take over the top design job.

"Mary is bringing a fresh perspective to the critically important job of developing vehicles that will delight our global customers," Akerson said. "Her experience and her ability to build strong relationships across the globe is enhancing GM's ability to deliver the cars and trucks today's consumers demand."

She's unfazed by the attention that comes with being the highest ranking woman in the male dominated business.

"There's pressure in every job. I have the best job at GM, because I lead a talented, dedicated team around the globe who shares a common vision: to design, build and sell great vehicles," she said.,

In a town that celebrates its auto leaders, Barra is also stepping into the spotlight.

She and husband, Tony, president of Filament Consulting, will co-chair the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute Dinner this Saturday in Warren.

"We're so proud to be involved with this," she said. "They helped my mother overcome breast cancer twice and she was here years longer  because of the wonderful work they did. (Alas, her mom did pass away)."

Barra also kicked off Inforum's 50th Anniversary year-long celebration last month with a sold out event she headlined before 600 people in Detroit.

Her advice to other young women hoping to move up the corporate ladder?

"You need to do a great job and you will get noticed," she said. "Great leaders will naturally give you advice once you've earned it."

Repeat for Barack Obama?

Speaking of leadership, with Mitt Romney all but coronated as the GOP nominee to take on President Barack Obama, the question  arose during the "Michigan Matters" roundtable: does Obama deserve a second stint?

"He came in with such promise," said Lena Epstein Koretzky, a business executive who serves as the head of the Oakland County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner. "But I look at things like what has gone on with our national debt (since he got there) and it's a huge problem. He needs to go."

Koretzky appeared with Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, and Bankole Thompson, Senior Editor of the Michigan Chronicle.

Baruah said he thought it would be tough for anyone to beat an incumbent president.

Thompson, who has written two books about Obama,  agreed

You can count on lots of talk about the presidential  race at the chamber's upcoming Mackinac Conference at the end of May with political strategists Donna Brazile and Tucker Eskew appearing at one session.

Watch "Michigan Matters" 11:30 a.m. Sundays on CBS62

(Carol Cain is the Emmy winning senior producer and host of "Michigan Matters." She writes a column on business and politics in Sunday's Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at or 248-355-7126).

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