Final Inspection

New Biography: Mary Barra Earned Her Way to Top at GM

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What makes the CEO’s story all the more compelling is that she grew up in a middle-class GM family and wound up leading the world’s second-largest automaker.

If Mary Barra has any major faults, you won’t find them in a new book entitled “Road to Power” (Wiley & Sons, 143 pages, $29.95).

It’s not that the author, Bloomberg News reporter Laura Colby, didn’t try. However, the sources she interviewed and the articles she liberally cites, have almost nothing but praise for General Motors’ first female CEO.

The book’s subtitle is “How Mary Barra Shattered the Glass Ceiling.” But in charting Barra’s life from her birth as Mary Makela on Christmas Eve 1961 in suburban Waterford, MI, to her 39th-floor Renaissance Center office in the company’s Motor City headquarters overlooking the Detroit River, it turns out she didn’t so much as shatter glass as earn her way to the top as a brilliant engineer and a can-do manager and executive.

What makes her story all the more compelling is that she grew up in a middle-class GM family and wound up leading the world’s second-largest automaker. Her father was a journeyman die maker and member of the UAW union at GM’s Pontiac Motor Div. and her mother was a bookkeeper.

Colby writes about women in business for Bloomberg, and it’s clear that despite recent successes by numerous females in reaching the top at major corporations, she employs MLB-like stats to argue that much more needs to be done. That starts with the longstanding argument that women remain underpaid compared to men, that they still face formidable obstacles to getting ahead in their careers and that they face verbal abuse in the workplace from their male counterparts.

Anyone who has followed GM even marginally since its bankruptcy six years ago to its current faulty-ignition-switch dilemma, which reportedly has claimed more than 100 lives and caused hundreds of injuries, will find much familiar reading in the book.

To answer an immediate question: Colby found no evidence Barra knew of the switch problem, which traces back more than10 years. The switch failure turns off the ignition, eliminating power to the airbags and increasing steering and braking effort, which can cause drivers to lose control.

Should she have known, given her major engineering and product-development assignments? Not if GM was as insular and silo-oriented as Colby and others have underscored. The problem was traced to decisions made at lower levels and, from most accounts, never surfaced up the ladder until wrongful-death suits began piling up.

Colby’s book was published in March so it doesn’t include some later developments involving the faulty switches. Lawyers now are seeking depositions from former CEO Rick Wagoner, who was fired as part of the government bailout, and other high-ranking GM officials, including Barra.

Barra inherited the mess when she took over as CEO 18 months ago. Since then she has appeared before Congress, where she received low marks for providing stock answers to tough questions, Colby writes. But she also has been forceful, firing 15 and suspending others; setting up a $400 million fund for those killed or injured; meeting with survivor families; and naming a new safety czar to avoid future calamities.

Barra has been a high achiever starting in her high school days, Colby writes. She went on to attend the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint, MI, where she earned a degree in electrical engineering in 1985, the same year she married Tony Barra, a fellow graduate engineer. They have two children, but Colby provides very few details about her personal life.

Barra began her GM career at the Pontiac plant building the Fiero small car, but within three years was off to Stanford University to pursue an MBA sponsored by GM, a clear sign she had been recognized as a “high potential” candidate.

From then on she moved up quickly. Although she rose through the engineering and manufacturing ranks, she was tapped in 1997 to report as an aide to then-CEO Jack Smith at GM headquarters. There she worked for both Smith and Vice Chairman Harry Pearce. “She stood out,” Pearce is quoted as saying. “Very easy to talk to, very engaging, not a big ego, real thirst for knowledge.”

Jack Smith’s strategy – he declined to be interviewed by Colby – was to give those destined for high jobs at GM an opportunity to gain experience “to understand the bigger picture,” Colby explains. Barra remained in the executive offices until 2001, the last two years as general director of internal communications – a stint that honed her already impressive skills in that vital area.

Barra shifted back to engineering and in 2003 she was named manager of the1985-vintage Detroit/Hamtramck plant with 3,400 employees, a major leap in her career. She had set her sights on running an assembly plant early on, and the post paved the way for higher things to come.

From 2004 to 2014 she moved on to a series of increasingly important jobs  in manufacturing engineering including head of global human resources during GM’s bankruptcy period (2009-2011).

Dan Akerson, one of two interim CEOs brought in from outside during GM’s post-bankruptcy period, in 2013 named Barra as executive vice president-global product development, purchasing and supply chain, deemed by some as GM’s No.2 job, putting her over 35,000 employees in 130 countries. And when he departed, Akerson chose Barra as his successor.

Comments about her personality and capabilities, universally favorable, from big names like Bob Lutz and Mark Reuss, are sprinkled throughout “Road to Power.” There also are some trifling errors any good editor would’ve caught.

Overall, however, it’s a quick read as the first full-length book about an exceptional woman as she battles to restore GM’s once-proud name while fighting daily headlines about those faulty switches.

I personally like one quote attributed to her: “No more crappy cars.” Amen, Ms. Barra.

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