Mary Barra's uniqueness as the new Chief Executive Officer at General Motors is not because she is the first woman to lead the company. Barra's understanding of how stuff works at GM is dramatically different from any of the men who came before her.

  Barra started her career working as a plant engineer at the assembly plant in Pontiac, Mich., after receiving an engineering degree from Kettering University and holding an internship at GM. In addition to being an engineer, Barra has a Masters in Business Administration from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Barra's roots go back a generation. Her father worked for GM for 39 years as a die maker for Pontiac.

  None of the CEOs in recent years has ever worked at a plant -- or knew first hand the nuts and bolts of car making -- not Dan Akerson, Ed Whitacre, Rick Wagoner, Jack Smith or Roger Smith. Most of those CEOs had financial and business backgrounds.

  Fritz Henderson, who took over as CEO when Rick Wagoner was ousted, also had business degrees, but he had also been successful in international operations in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
  Barra's current responsibilities as Executive Vice President, Global Product Development & Global Purchasing and Supply Chain encompass every step that is taken to make a new model from research and development to the time when the new model rolls off the line.

  Her involvement, said GM spokesperson Renee Rashid-Merem, begins the moment a line is drawn on a piece of paper in the design studio and continues through production. Barra is involved in decisions about vehicle content, engine specifications and performance, parts sourcing.

  She has an understanding of what engineering and design will win in the marketplace. She worked under Bob Lutz, GM's most respected car czar, who has said Barra's implementation of global manufacturing strategy was a major achievement that saved the company a lot of money. He called her polite, poised, efficient and capable.

  "She's involved in each part of the process; how the vehicle will be assembled, how to source each and every part to make the design come to life," says Rashid-Merem. "Her responsibilities include making a prototype and how and where you will manufacture the vehicle and on what platform. It's everything up until you start the manufacturing. And then there's an overlap between engineering and manufacturing when they work together. Then the vehicle goes into production and then it becomes part of manufacturing. In financial terms, about 60 percent of GM's operating budget falls under her review."

  Because she spent so much time in manufacturing she can jump on an issue and get around it in an early prototype build and that has helped GM bring product to market faster. She has made one engineer accountable for the development of each vehicle development program. She has sped up development of new models and she continues to consolidate GM's global vehicle platforms.

  There is no doubt in anyone's mind that GM product has improved greatly. Cadillac has received praise for the ATS and CTS. Chevrolet, Buick and GMC are all producing desirable product. During Mary Barra's time managing vehicle development GM rose to be among the top brands in J.D. Powers Initial Quality Study.

"GM has continued to show improvement in designing and building better quality cars that are more appealing to customers," says Dave Sargent vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. "In 2013, GM actually had the lowest overall level of reported problems of any corporation in the industry in initial quality."

  Barra has her work cut out for her. More and better product needs to come from GM, more refinement to the systems is needed and there's still a cumbersome bureaucracy to trim. Her deep roots at GM will either be a good thing for the future of the company or perpetuate the bureaucratic problems that plague the company. Since she has already swept a lot of cobwebs out of the barn, it's probably a good bet that she will continue to change the workings of GM for the good. -- Kate McLeod, Motor Matters

  Manufacturer Photos: The world's largest automaker with 29,000 employees, General Motors, will be a led by a woman, Mary Barra, beginning Jan. 15, 2014.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2013

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