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New GM CEO, Mary Barra, wants to speed up progress
First Published Jan 23 2014 12:49 pm • Last Updated Jan 23 2014 12:49 pm

Detroit • General Motors Co.’s new CEO, Mary Barra, says she will largely keep in place the plans of her predecessor, from a restructuring in Europe to a focus on improving profit margins. But she hopes to accelerate that progress.

"We’re no longer just looking for viability, but we’re looking for growth and leadership in the operations we have around the world," Barra told a small group of reporters Thursday. "Now that some of those things have gotten the attention and are righted, let’s take it and go."

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Thursday’s 50-minute session was Barra’s first interview since she became CEO on Jan. 15. Barra, 52, joked that the quiet conference room at GM’s Detroit headquarters was a better place to talk than last week’s Detroit auto show, where she was mobbed by hundreds of reporters.

Former CEO Dan Akerson announced last month that he was stepping down to care for his ailing wife. Under Akerson, GM made billions in profits and pushed to turn around struggling parts of its business, like Europe.

Barra, a 33-year GM veteran who was global product development chief before Akerson named her CEO, said she and other members of GM’s leadership team helped Akerson develop his strategy, including a restructuring in Europe that will cost the automaker $1.1 billion this year. GM still expects to achieve 10-percent pretax profit margins and break even in Europe by the middle of this decade, she said. It also wants to increase annual sales in China to 5 million by next year, up from 3.1 million last year.

Among her priorities is making GM’s brand messages clear and consistent worldwide. Cadillac has the potential to be a global luxury brand, for example, and Chevrolet needs to make the case that it provides a lot of value to buyers. The new Chevrolet Corvette — a relative bargain with a starting price of $52,000 — should help, she said.

Barra said President Dan Ammann will lead a new focus on sharing best practices between GM’s regions and quickly implementing them elsewhere. That’s something that didn’t always happen in the past, she said.

She also plans to go global with a year-old program that sends engineers to dealerships for several weeks to learn what customers want.

Barra kicked off her tenure by meeting last week with GM’s top 300 leaders to share her goals and listen to theirs. Barra said she has always had a collaborative leadership style from her earliest days as an engineer at one of GM’s plants.

"I’ve always been focused on winning the hearts and minds of the employee base," she said. "When you’re aligned, and when they understand, you’re just going to have superior business results."

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