General Motors names company insider Mary Barra as first female CEO

December 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: General Motors has named a new CEO, and she’s a woman, one who worked her way up in a company once known as an old boys club. The news comes one day after the federal government sold the last of the GM shares it purchased during the big auto bailout.

Micheline Maynard long covered the auto industry, and she is now a contributor to Forbes. She’s a lecturer at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and the editor of a new journalism project, Curbing Cars: How We Get Around.

Micki Maynard, hello. Welcome back to the NewsHour.

Tell us, who is this new CEO, Mary Barra?

MICHELINE MAYNARD, Forbes.com: So, it’s understandable if people haven’t heard of her, Judy, because she’s been one of those people that’s well-known to folks inside General Motors, but not particularly well-known outside of General Motors.

She’s someone who went to the company in college. Essentially, she went to what used to be called the General Motors Institute. It’s now Kettering University. And one of the things that you do when you’re there is go to work for General Motors in the summer. So, she’s only 51, but she’s been at General Motors for 33 years.

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Some of her other jobs have included running an assembly plant, the Detroit Hamtramck plant. She’s run human resources. Most recently, she was in charge of General Motors’ global product development operations. And that’s where she caught the eye of Dan Akerson, who is the outgoing CEO.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you wrote today about that. Why did he have his eye on her? What was it about her?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, one of the things about Ms. Barra is that, first of all, she comes from within General Motors.

And Detroit over the last few years, since General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, since Ford got in financial trouble, has been run by outsiders as CEOs. Fiat controls Chrysler. The Fiat CEO runs Chrysler. Mr. Akerson came from a private investment firm in Washington, and he was named to the GM board by the Treasury Department, and he ended up running the company. And then, obviously, Alan Mulally is running Ford Motor Company, and he came from Boeing.

So Mary Barra is an insider. Mr. Akerson, I think, wanted to make a bold choice. I think he was looking for someone who would be different than the typical old-style General Motors CEO. He obviously liked her. He saw a lot of her talent, and he decided that, this was going to be my choice.

And that wasn’t — that wasn’t a secret in Detroit. Everyone here knew for about the past year that she was being groomed to be CEO. I was surprised that it happened this quickly, because she’s 51, and, in Detroit, that’s still relatively young to be a CEO.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, having said all this, what’s the significance of this? It is deeply unusual to have a woman in this position, isn’t it?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Right.

So if you look at all the Fortune 500 companies, even though we hear a lot about women CEOs, there are only 22 in all of the 500 companies. There’s never been a woman CEO in Detroit, although, through the years, I have seen a lot of talented women who could have risen to the position if they had had the patience or the opportunity.

Obviously, it’s a huge issue for Detroit that women have not risen to the top of the companies, because women now buy more than half of the vehicles sold in the United States. And so you have a very male environment selling vehicles to a very female audience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Micki, the other story we’re — we’re obviously following today is the report yesterday that the government sold its last shares in GM. This is four years after the federal government, in a very controversial move, bailed out this big automobile company.

Now that this has happened, where does it leave GM? Are the lessons from this experience clear yet?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, General Motors now is an independent company again without government ownership.

The U.S. taxpayer lost about $10 billion on the deal, and it was always understood from the beginning that there would be some money that was never paid back by GM. Where it least General Motors is in an extremely competitive automobile market. You know, back 10 years ago, 15 years ago, General Motors had about 30 percent of the car market. They now have about 18 percent.

Ford is very close behind them. Toyota is close to them. So we have a market where the big shares that are divided up are much more equal than they were back in the days when GM owned the car market. So GM has to compete for buyers. It also has to compete in the time when many Americans are rethinking the way we get around. They’re thinking about, do I need to own a car? Do we need three cars? Can we get along with two cars?

Maybe I will take the bus. Maybe I will take the new streetcar that’s in town. And so consumers are rethinking their automobile use at a time when there’s so much competition. There’s a fight for every single buyer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, quickly, is there a lingering effect from this government, heavy government role in GM over the last several years?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, GM got the nickname “Government Motors.” And I think it will be a long time before it’s able to shed that.

And GM became a source of political controversy. And that’s something that it will have to work very hard to overcome as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Micki Maynard, we thank you.

MICHELINE MAYNARD: My pleasure, Judy. Thanks a lot.