Just months after closing the sale of its long-troubled Opel/Vauxhall subsidiary, General Motors CEO Mary Barra said she would “absolutely” consider the option of returning to the European market if the right opportunity came along – especially with new, “transformative” technologies, such as autonomous and electrified vehicles.
Barra, who was named the first female CEO of a major automaker four years ago this week, took on a wide range of topics, including autonomous and electrified vehicles, tax reform, NAFTA and sexual harassment, during a Q&A session with reporters at a meeting of the Detroit Automotive Press Association on Monday.
The 56-year-old Barra has been credited with ushering in widespread change at the largest of the Detroit automakers, a company that emerged from Chapter 11 protection in 2010 only with the help of a massive federal bailout. That has required her to balance the traditional, metal-bending side of the business with next-generation technologies, including electrified powertrains and autonomous driving. She has shown a willingness to break with a tradition that had, for 100 years, translated into bigger is better.
In her four years as CEO, Barra has ordered GM to abandon struggling markets like Russia, South Africa and once-promising India, but one of the biggest moves of her tenure came with the announcement last March that the carmaker was selling off its European operations to France’s PSA Peugeot. The deal was completed in August.
(Barra commits to 1M EVs on global roads by 2026. Click Here for the story.)
Barra said she wouldn’t hesitate to pull out of other markets that offered few growth opportunities, suggesting, “We have to be good stewards of our investors’ capital. We need to generate an appropriate return. If we don’t see a path to generate appropriate returns we’re going to invest where we see better opportunities.”
Even so, some observers have speculated GM might eventually return to Europe and, when asked about that possibility, Barra didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” she said, adding that “Nothing keeps us from going back to Europe,” though she stressed that such a move would likely focus on “transformative products,” such as the electrified and autonomous vehicles GM is developing.
GM became the first automaker to launch a high-volume plug-in hybrid with the debut of the Chevrolet Volt seven years ago. It followed that with the first “affordable,” long-range battery-electric vehicle, the Chevy Bolt EV, last year – notably, months ahead of the eagerly anticipated Tesla Model 3. In November, GM global product chief Mark Reuss announced the company would introduce two other BEVs within 18 months and have “at least 20” for sale by 2023. The long-term goal is to go “all-electric.”
GM’s push to electrify could run into a problem if, as some members of Congress are proposing, the Republican tax bill drops incentives of up to $7,500 available for buyers of qualifying battery vehicles.
“I’m a proponent of that staying in because it’s the right thing to do,” Barra said. If the incentives are dropped, “that would change the equation” and make battery-based products less financially attractive she added, though she said GM would not back down on its commitment to the technology. That’s little surprise, however, because other markets, including China, are also taking steps to promote the technology. GM now sells more cars in that Asian nation than it does in the U.S.
(Click Here for details about GM’s stock price hitting all-time highs.)
Barra was asked about a number of policy changes under consideration by Congress and the Trump Administration. She said that she is “generally supportive” of the tax plan. She also lent cautious support to the White House plan to update the North American Free Trade Agreement. That comes after holding a “substantive conversation” between Vice President Mike Pence and industry leaders hoping to maintain the open borders policies that have allowed them to set up a vast, three-country network of parts and assembly plants.
“We agree NAFTA should be revised after 25 years but hope it will be done in productive ways that doesn’t have unexpected consequences,” Barra said.
During an hour-long conversation with reporters, one subject came up repeatedly: sexual harassment. As a life-long GM employee – whose father had also worked at the company – Barra admitted being surprised that her gender would become such a topic after her appointment as CEO. She initially seemed to shy away from making that an issue, but said she has come to see herself as having an important role, both inside GM and outside the company, addressing the issue.
“We want a harassment-free workplace,” she said. Noting her own children will soon be entering the workforce, Barra called it “unacceptable” for any company to tolerate any form of harassment. “I want to create an environment where everyone feels welcome and is able to achieve their potential.”
(To see more about GM going all-electric, Click Here.)
Barra warned that the process of changing corporate culture won’t be a quick fix, however. It will require continuously addressing the problem to ensure it doesn’t get swept aside in the future.