General Motors CEO Mary Barra’s mission is to transform a 114-year-old carmaker into a software titan making all electric and self-driving vehicles one day.
It is for that innovation and her leadership as the first woman to run a car company that Barra, 61, will be inducted into the 2023 Automotive Hall of Fame on Thursday, the Hall of Fame said in a statement.
The other inductees include: auto components entrepreneur Fred Bauer, race car driving legend Juan Manuel Fangio, Honda Motor Co. co-founder Takeo Fujisawa, Ford Motor Co. legendary designer McKinley Thompson and Larry R. Wood, also known as “Mr. Hot Wheels” at Mattel toy company.
“This group includes trailblazing innovators and leaders who have left an impact globally on the automotive industry and we couldn’t be more pleased to recognize their achievements and welcome them into the Hall of Fame,” said Sarah Cook, the group’s president.
Cook said the inductees are people who have helped shape the automotive industry and Barra has “certainly left her mark on the industry.”
“As the first female CEO of an automaker, she is leading General Motors into a future of electrified and autonomous driving while growing the company’s profitability,” Cook said. “Her motto of Zero crashes. Zero emissions. Zero congestion is driving game-changing innovation that will positively impact future generations.”
Barra: ‘I had a seat at the table’
Barra is a historic figure occupying the job held once by such noted CEOs as Alfred Sloan in the 1920s and Roger Smith in the 1980s. Yet, she characterizes her stewardship as a team effort.
“No single company or leader can execute a transformation of the magnitude we are seeing today without talented and purpose-led people who are determined to make a difference,” Barra said in an email her media handlers sent to the Detroit Free Press.. “It is a privilege to be part of this team as we focus on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a safer and better world for our customers, and for society.”
Barra said that as a second-generation GM employee, the recognition is personal.
“I followed my dad into this company more than 40 years ago,” Barra said. “I know he and my mother, who were my biggest advocates, would be so proud to see me receive this recognition.”
To say Barra’s job is big is an understatement. Her decisions affect the lives of the 167,000 people GM’s website said it currently employs worldwide. Then there are the ancillary jobs at the auto suppliers and other players in the industry that are tied to GM, a company valued at about $55.6 billion as of July 14.
And she remains the only woman running a car company, a job she got on Jan. 15, 2014. Two years later, she became GM’s chair too. Her gender merely means more eyes are on her, magnifying her successes and failures in an industry that remains male dominated. From January through April, women comprised 25.8% of the entire auto industry workforce, down from 27% in the same period in 2019, said Jason Miller, associate professor of logistics at Michigan State University. He used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Employment Statistics program for 2023.
Yet those who know her well will tell you she’s unflappable. She confidently stepped into her new job and within months had to testify before Congress during GM’s ignition switch crisis in 2014. She told the Detroit Free Press that crisis prompted her to take several steps to improve GM’s culture and encourage employees to report safety issues.
But through it all, her gender never gave her pause.
“Even as I started at 18 and the first time I entered an assembly plant, I didn’t say, ‘Oh wow, there’s not very many women, do I belong here?’ ” Barra told the Free Press a year ago during an interview as part of a profile story. “My mother raised me to believe, of course I belong here, I had this seat at the table.”
An entire career spent at GM
Barra started her career at GM in 1980 as a co-op student checking fender panels and inspecting hoods at Pontiac Motor Division in Pontiac. Her father, Ray Makela, had worked there as a diemaker for 40 years. Her mother, Eva Makela, grew up on a farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with seven siblings and was dirt poor. So Eva made sure her children, Mary and Paul, both knew the importance of an education to having a good life.
So in 1985, Barra graduated from Kettering (then called General Motors Institute) with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering and started full-time at GM. In 1990, she earned an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
She married Tony Barra just after graduating from college and they had two children who are now adults. Tony Barra is a retired consultant and, as empty nesters, Barra and her husband share their Northville Township home with two Coton de Tuléar dogs named Marcy and Hunter. Barra is allergic to most dogs except that breed.
It’s not unusual for Barra to start the day at 7 a.m. with back-to-back meetings lasting until noon, but she said she doesn’t keep track of how many hours a week she works, only that the days are long.
‘Agent of change’ faced challenges
This honor is not the first time Barra is being recognized. In 2021, Time Magazine called her “an agent of change” when it named her to its Time100 annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. It was her second time on the list.
But there have been skeptics. Some blame her for GM’s fluctuating U.S. market share even though GM’s market share had been declining for years before Barra was named CEO. GM ended the second quarter with a U.S. market share of 16.8%, flat against the year-ago quarter, but down from its recent peak at 18.5% in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to data from Edmunds.com.
Also GM’s stock price, which partly determines GM’s value, keeps the automaker undervalued in comparison with some rivals and Barra has openly expressed frustration about this.
Then, there is the union. For change to happen at GM, Barra needs the support of the UAW International and the hourly workforce. But relations have been rocky at times. The UAW ordered a six-week strike against GM in 2019 after Barra said GM would shut down four U.S. factories. In the end, GM closed three factories. But as GM approaches negotiations for a new four-year contract this fall, talk of another strike swirls around the Detroit Three again.
Also, in 2021, GM issued a global recall of all 2017-22 model year Chevrolet Bolts and Bolt EUVs because the batteries could catch fire. The batteries were made by LG Energy Solution, still it was a “black eye” for an automaker that wants to eventually sell all EVs. It cost GM about $1.8 billion.
Finally, there has been the slow rollout of GM’s new EVs on its Ultium propulsion platform. GM only has two models for sale currently: the Cadillac Lyriq SUV and the GMC Hummer pickup. It is launching the Chevrolet Silverado EV pickup, the Hummer SUV and the Chevrolet Equinox EV and the Blazer EV SUVs this year. But for the first half, GM sold 1.3 million vehicles, of which 36,322 were EVs, and most of them were for the Bolt and Bolt EUVs.
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Still, Barra is doing what it takes to keep GM on track. Sales of the big profit-making gasoline pickups and SUVs are soaring. And, she made the unpopular move to bring salaried workers back into the office three days a week. She is hiring big names from tech titans to ensure GM has profit revenues in subscriptions and other new businesses to keep it profitable for another 114 years.
The Automotive Hall of Fame is a nonprofit that honors the automotive and mobility industry’s leaders and innovators. Founded in 1939, the hall has honored 755 awardees from around the world. It is located in Dearborn and is open to the public 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays. The induction ceremony will be held Friday at The Fillmore in Detroit. To learn more about the ceremony and the other inductees, go to www.automotivehalloffame.org.
Contact Jamie L. LaReau: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter. Become a subscriber.