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Mary Barra is about to become the most influential CEO in GM history

Mary barraDaniel Roland/Stringer/Getty ImagesGM CEO Mary Barra, with the Opel logo in the background.

•The GM CEO has enough strength to execute a major deal by selling Opel.
•GM’s overarching agenda now is to maximise its return on invested capital.

•Barra is in a position to be the best GM leader since Alfred Sloan.

Since the news broke last week that General Motors is pursuing a sale of its European division — Opel in Germany and Vauxhall in the UK — to France’s PSA Group, the deal has rapidly accelerated.

It now looks as if GM will be shedding Opel/Vauxhall, a move it contemplated and rejected in 2009, when the automaker was coming of bankruptcy and streamlining its operations.

The deal died back then not because it wasn’t a good idea — GM has been struggling to make Opel, a brand it’s controlled since before World War II, profitable in Europe’s messy auto market. Rather, the GM board was concerned that an acquisition by Magna, a part supplier and contract car manufacturer, alongside a Russian bank would compromise GM’s technology.

It’s possible that GM wanted to make this move sooner, but CEO Mary Barra took the reigns at the automaker just as a massive and deadly ignition-switch recall was roiling the company. The time simply wasn’t right for a major deal.

But Barra is now firmly ensconced in her leadership role, having negotiated the recall and assembled perhaps the best management team GM has ever had. The company has made bold moves under her direction including GM exiting the Russian market, pulling the Chevy brand out of Europe, and winding down Australian manufacturing.

During her tenure, GM has also forged ahead with a strategy to transform mobility. In 2016, GM launched its ride-sharing service Maven, acquired Cruise Automation, made a substantial investment in Lyft, and launch of the all-electric Chevy Bolt.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Barra has presided over years of consecutively profitable quarters and transformed GM’s balance sheet into a fortress. And as of late, the carmaker’s stock price has even seen a modest uptick, which has largely disappointed investors since a 2010 IPO.

The legacy of Alfred Sloan

Alfred Sloan My Years at GMScreenshot via AmazonSloan created the modern American corporation.

She was up against unprecedented challenges as the first female CEO of a major automaker, but Barra has been so effective that you have to go back to 1950s to find a leader of similar capability: GM’s legendary midcentury President, Alfred Sloan, when effectively created the modern American corporation.

Barra doesn’t have the 50% US market share that Sloan did, but she has considerable vision — and the capability to execute on the two major pieces of her strategy.

The Opel sale forms an integral part of this. For several years, Barra has stressed that GM will be ruthless about maximizing its return in invested capital. If there’s an overarching message at the company now, that’s what it is, and it’s been echoed by everyone I’ve talked to at the carmaker.

Wasting money isn’t in the playbook, and that’s why GM has been making big moves in Europe and Russia, with Opel just the latest example. The moment is also ideal to sell Opel to PSA, which was bailed out by the French government and Chinese investment and needs to drastically increase its market share in Europe. The European market has also probably recovered as much as it reasonably can at this point, and the last thing Barra wants is to manage Opel through a downturn.

Chevy Chevrolet BoltBill Pugliano/Getty ImagesBarra and GM VP Mark Reuss unveil the Chevy Bolt EV.

Losing money becomes investing money

GM has by all accounts enjoyed a happy collaboration on several vehicles with PSA and CEO Carlos Tavares, so the French automaker makes for buyer ready to deal, with only the intricate politics of German and British approval to contend with (no mean feat, and Barra has been on deck with this issue, travelling to Europe this week).

Losing money in Europe can now be transformed into investing money in the US and China, which together could account for something like 40 million in annual vehicle sales in total, with GM capturing 30% and bolstering the bottom line by selling profitable trucks and SUVs.

Investment could also flow to new opportunities in ride-hailing, self-driving vehicles, and new connectivity technologies that will tap the flow of data that GM can collect with its vehicles.

Unlike the last time around, there now appears to be will at GM to say goodbye to Opel after almost a century. Barra has provided the backbone. Now all the automaker has to do is execute.

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