Alfred P. Sloan, General Motors’ first CEO, once said: "There has to be this pioneer, the individual who has the courage, the ambition to overcome the obstacles that always develop when one tries to do something worthwhile, especially when it is new and different."
New. Different. First.
Sloan was most assuredly not talking about Mary Barra, the woman who would be named GM’s 14th CEO 90 years later. But he could have been.
The very spirit that led GM to become the biggest automaker in the world (Sloan also once said: "a car for every purse, and purpose") now inspires the company to make Barra the first female head of a major automaker.
In some ways, it’s a first whose arrival was inevitable. GM has women on its board of directors, and has had women as heads of nearly all its major divisions. Barra herself was senior vice president for product development, and has been with the company since 1980.
But it’s also darned remarkable. The Detroit Three have long been male-dominated institutions, with their executive ranks nearly defining the smoky old boys’ club stereotype through much of the middle of the last century.
And then there are the signature vehicles for GM: Corvette, GTO, Camaro, Trans Am and now all the trucks and SUVs that still dominate the lineup. Even the vaunted pink Cadillac, iconic first during the 1950s, was a masculine interpretation of elegance and power.
There is something especially notable, and pleasantly jarring, about a woman ascending to the top job at a company that has been so consumed with male ego and bravado.
Barra takes the reins at GM at a pivotal time, too. The federal government just sold the last bit of GM stock it held from the bailouts and bankruptcy reorganization in 2009; the company has reported some $26 billion in profits over the past 15 quarters.
GM is leaner and smarter now, and has solved the puzzle of increased margins on smaller vehicles, something that held the company back for years.
Barra’s extensive experience in the company - she started as an intern at the old General Motors Institute in Flint - gives her a strong grounding in the business’ fundamentals, and her work over recent years to align product development with purchasing puts her on the cutting edge of the company’s challenges and opportunities.
In response to a question about the lack of "car guys" running big automakers these days, outgoing GM CEO Daniel Akerson joked recently that he thought one of the automakers might soon be run by a "car gal."
GM just made it happen. Sloan may not have predicted it, but Barra’s ascension goes to the core of the GM ambition and spirit that he ignited back in the 1920s.
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