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Published: Sunday, 5/4/2014 - Updated: 6 months ago

CEO Barra leans on small circle of GM vets

Does core insider team make up ‘new’ auto firm?

REUTERS
Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, and Mark Reuss, global development chief, were rivals for GM’s top job. Insiders now say Mr. Reuss may be Ms. Barra’s closest ally. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, and Mark Reuss, global development chief, were rivals for GM’s top job. Insiders now say Mr. Reuss may be Ms. Barra’s closest ally.
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DETROIT — In the midst of General Motors Co.’s biggest crisis since bankruptcy, new Chief Executive Mary Barra is turning to an inner circle dominated by company “lifers,” believing the team is up to handling the massive recall and reinvigorating the company without much outside help, former and current GM executives say.

Ms. Barra’s every move is being dissected in the wake of the recall of 2.6 million cars for an ignition-switch defect linked to at least 13 deaths.

One question is whether the “New GM” that emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 is a different company from the old one.

Ms. Barra’s inner circle includes one relative newcomer, and GM has hired three outside consultants for help with the switch crisis, but most of her core team, like Ms. Barra, are long-time GM veterans.

Products chief Mark Reuss may be her closest ally, even though the two vied to become CEO, according to a consensus of eight current and former executives, who asked not to be identified. He’s a “car guy” and she’s a “car gal,” an accolade in Detroit for true driving enthusiasts.

The second close adviser is chief counsel Michael Millikin, who has risen in influence as he has helped guide the company’s guarded response to the ignition switch defect. He is co-leading the internal probe of the switch.

GM declined to comment on Ms. Barra’s closest team.

Ms. Barra has said she meets with her team daily by phone or in person. She also makes nearly daily calls to nonexecutive Chairman Tim Solso, the 67-year-old former Cummins CEO, who was chosen by the board as chairman at the same time Ms. Barra was named CEO, in order to mentor her. Mr. Solso is not part of the core team running the company’s day-to-day operations, though.

When Ms. Barra, 52, went to Congress for a grilling, Mr. Milliken and Mr. Reuss sat behind her as she repeatedly apologized, promised to take care of customers, and offered limited details of what actually happened.

The inner team is rounded out by Human Relations head John Quattrone, Alan Batey, the company’s point person with U.S. dealers, and former Wall Street banker Dan Ammann, who as chief financial officer reworked the company’s opaque financial systems after bankruptcy. All of the five but Mr. Ammann have been at GM for more than three decades.

“She’s not looking for personal advisers who would be separate from the management team,” said a person familiar with GM’s operations. Ms. Barra, a 34-year GM veteran, believes that looking outside the GM executive ranks and board room is not necessary, given the management team’s crisis experience surviving the U.S. economic meltdown in 2008 and the company’s bankruptcy the next year, the person added. Most have worked around the world for GM.

Ms. Barra’s team was assembled to rebuild the company from the inside, not to take on the switch crisis.

They are a legacy of former CEO Dan Akerson, who anointed Ms. Barra and set the key elements of the company’s post-bankruptcy strategy: launch better cars and trucks for which the automaker could charge higher prices, while repairing overseas operations, especially in money-losing Europe.

Mr. Millikin, 65, was “connected at the hip with Akerson” and North American chief Mr. Batey, 51, was also a confidant, sources said. Mr. Quattrone, 61, though, is a former lieutenant of Ms. Barra, when she ran HR after the company’s 2009 bankruptcy. He succeeded HR chief Melissa Howell when she left last month.

“Your inner circle has to include product development, because that’s where most of the people are; customer sales and service, because the dealers are the face of the company, and HR, because it’s recruiting, promoting, and rewarding the right people,” a second person familiar with GM’s operations said, referring to jobs held by Mr. Reuss, Mr. Batey, and Mr. Quattrone.

Mr. Reuss, 50, is a fellow engineer who succeeded Ms. Barra as GM’s global product development chief.

“They have similar backgrounds, are about the same age, and obviously have spent a lot of time together the last few years,” one of the former GM executives said. The two together faced reporters in March for the first time after the recall.

At GM’s Detroit riverfront headquarters, Ms. Barra fielded most questions, occasionally calling on Mr. Reuss.

Mr. Ammann, 42, was recruited from Wall Street in April, 2010, to be treasurer and manage GM’s reintroduction to the public stock market that fall. Now president and charged with running GM’s regional operations, he was the third key executive considered along with Ms. Barra and Mr. Reuss for GM’s top job.



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