DETROIT - When Mary Barra was born in 1961, General Motors (GM) was selling half the cars on U.S. roads.
In her booming middle-class suburb north of Detroit, the woman who will soon become GM's CEO remembers pining as a 10-year-old for her cousin's red Camaro convertible and tinkering in the garage with her father, a die maker who spent four decades at GM.In 33 years at GM, Barra has worked in engineering, communications and human resources. She's gained in-depth knowledge of a company whose complexity contributed to its losing ground to rivals and, four years ago, a trip through bankruptcy court. In each stop, Barra analyzed the situation and simplified things. For instance, she streamlined designs by using the same parts in many different models.
One of her professors at General
Motors Institute, now Kettering University, saw evidence of her managerial abilities
"She was great in getting jobs
done, putting a team together and making sure that it's being done right,"
Mo Torfeh says. "She was always the person who took charge."
Now it's up to Barra -- the first woman to lead a global automaker -- to ensure GM prospers for a new generation of 212,000 employees spread over 23 time zones.GM's board unanimously approved her for the post two weeks ago after CEO Dan Akerson announced he would step down to help his wife battle cancer.
Barra, 52, inherits a company that's
putting out strong new products and making money. Since leaving bankruptcy in
2009, GM has racked up almost $20 billion in profits. But it also faces intense
competition in its home market and challenges in Europe and other regions.
Friends and colleagues say Barra has
an unusual mix of skills. She's fiercely intelligent yet humble and
approachable. She's collaborative but is often the person who takes charge. And
she's not afraid to make changes.
"When you put her in a position
that's completely new to her, she does an amazing job of getting grounded,
understanding what's important and what's not and executing very well,"
said Gary Cowger, a former GM executive who mentored Barra.
Barra, who declined to be interviewed
for this story, has said she had an early aptitude for math and science. Her
mother, one of eight children who never attended college, encouraged Barra and
made higher education a priority for her and her brother.
"She was so supportive, not
saying 'You have to do this or that,' but whatever you do, put your heart in
it," Barra said at Inforum, a professional development group for women, at
an event in Detroit last year.
Barra joined GM at 18. She was a co-op
student, working for several months at a time at GM's Pontiac division while
studying for her engineering degree at General Motors Institute, a Flint,
Michigan, college then owned by the company.
In a lab where students worked in
teams to build electric motor controls, Barra showed natural management skills not
often found in engineers, said Torfeh, the veteran professor who instructed
Barra in at least two classes.
Barra was near the top of her class,
but wasn't the smartest engineer. Her people skills, however, were so strong
that Torfeh thought at the time Barra would rise high in the male-dominated
Through the years, Barra stayed in
touch with Torfeh. Last June, when she spoke at Kettering's commencement, Barra
took time to congratulate Torfeh and his daughter, who was graduating that day.
GMI was the training ground for many
female executives in the auto industry, including Diana Tremblay, a GM vice
president, and Carla Bailo, head of Nissan Motor Co.'s research in the
Bailo, who graduated a year before
Barra and serves with her on Kettering's board, said it's understandable how
many of the women who started in the male-dominated 1980s became leaders.
"If you had the guts and gumption
to stick that out, to say, 'This is a man's world and I need to blend in,' that
makes us some of the most adaptive people in the industry," she said.
Barra graduated from GMI in 1985, and
GM eventually sent her to Stanford University to earn an MBA. When she
returned, she rotated through a number of jobs, including executive assistant
to then-CEO Jack Smith, a role often given to rising stars. She headed midsize
car engineering and managed GM's Detroit-Hamtramck plant.
Just after the 2009 bankruptcy,
then-CEO Ed Whitacre put her in charge of human resources, a stop that isn't
normally along the CEO track. But in Barra's case HR was key. GM had to keep
talented people from jumping ship so it had bench strength to recover. Few
In 2011, Akerson plucked Barra from HR
to run GM's huge worldwide product development, an operation he says was in
chaos at the time.
Through all the moves, Barra did the
same thing she did in college -- took charge and got people to work as a team,
said Grace Lieblein, GM's vice president of purchasing and a close friend of
"It's almost always Mary who
stands up and says she'll take that on," Lieblein says.
One recent problem she took on was the
Chevrolet Malibu, a midsize car with roots back to GM's pre-bankruptcy era. GM
rushed an updated version to market in 2012. The car looked dull and sold
poorly. Barra and her team made fixes in under a year, something unheard of at
GM. The new version reached showrooms in the fall and sales are up.
Barra does have holes in her resume.
She has little experience in sales and marketing or accounting, two key areas
that she'll have to rely on others to manage.
But Whitacre said she'll overcome any
knowledge gaps. "What she doesn't know she'll pick up quite quickly,"
Barra made $4.85 million last year,
including a $750,000 base salary plus stock units. The pay for her new job
hasn't been determined, but it's no longer capped by government pay
Much has been made about Barra's
gender. At the Inforum meeting last year, she stiffened when the issue came up.
"We all come to the table, we all
work hard, we all bring out skills and that's the way I've always thought of
it," she said. "I never went and said, 'That happened to me because
I'm a woman.' Just don't go there."
Barra believes in balancing work and
family. She's been married for 27 years to Tony Barra, a technology consultant,
and has two teenage children and a dog. She sometimes tells executives and
engineers who are working late to go home.
Because her job spans so many time
zones, there's much travel and days are long. She's on several corporate,
nonprofit and university boards. She likes to go to dinner with friends, but
after kid activities, there's little time left for her own hobbies.
"I don't have a lot of free time,
but that's the life I've designed right now," she told Inforum.
When Akerson announced Barra's
appointment as CEO in a broadcast to employees, many of them applauded
spontaneously, Lieblein said. "I just thought, 'wow, that is so
cool,'" Lieblein said. "She cares about people and they know