GM’s Mary Barra Has a Plan to Win the Electric Vehicle Race

The daughter of a G.M. die maker, Ms. Barra, 60, grew up in Royal Oak, Mich., and started working at a G.M. plant as an intern at 18 while studying electrical engineering at the company’s technical college, now called Kettering University. Through a G.M. fellowship, she earned a master’s in business administration at Stanford. Since entering the management ranks, she has held top posts in global manufacturing, human resources, product development and supply chain management.

In January 2014, she succeeded Daniel F. Akerson as chief executive and became the first woman to head a major auto company. Ms. Barra guided G.M. through a scandal stemming from an ignition-switch flaw linked to crashes that resulted in more than 100 deaths. She then made a series of decisions that showed that the General Motors that had recently emerged from bankruptcy was not the conservative, lumbering giant that consumers and investors had known for a century.

In a move that would once have been unthinkable, she decided to pull out of the European market, a region of slow growth and low margins where G.M. had been posting losses for two decades. G.M. sold its European operations to France’s Peugeot S.A., now part of Stellantis. Included in the sale was the Opel division, which had been owned by G.M. since 1929.

Shedding money-losing businesses that had been tolerated for years “helped change the whole mind-set,” she said. “The whole company kind of went, ‘Well, this is a new day.’”

G.M., which had long taken pride in developing its own technology, also acquired an automated vehicle start-up, Cruise Automation. In another precedent-breaking move, G.M. has brought in outside investors, including Honda and T. Rowe Price, to share the costs and risks of spending billions of dollars on self-driving vehicles.

Along the way, Ms. Barra formed a close partnership with Mr. Reuss, a contemporary who had been a candidate for the top job in 2014. He, too, has spent his career at G.M. and had followed his own father, Lloyd Reuss, a former president of the company.


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