If anyone can claim to have “gasoline in his veins,” it’s Mark Reuss. His connection to the auto industry goes back generations, his father a veteran General Motors employee who rose to become its president during the late 1980s. That’s the same post that Mark Reuss holds today, although it is a far different company from the one his father retired from three decades ago.
GM is no longer intent on being the world’s biggest automaker, having walked away from the markets in Europe, Russia, Australia and India, among others. And while it still draws most of its profits from big trucks like the Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Yukon, it has become one of the most aggressive manufacturers when it comes to shifting resources from gas and diesel to battery power.
As the “car guy” in the C-suite, the 55-year-old Reuss still has a passion for piston power and models like the first-ever mid-engine Corvette. But he’s also overseeing the development of the battery-electric vehicles that increasingly will dominate the GM line-up during the coming decade — with the automaker “aspiring” to go 100% electric by 2035.
Looking to the future
Reuss will talk about “sustainability” during an upcoming policy conference to be held, ironically, on Michigan’s quaint — and completely car-less — Mackinac Island. He spoke to me about not just the goal of going green but also the challenges of safely leading GM through the pandemic and what comes next.
TheDetroitBureau: As so often seems the case, the auto industry was among the first hit by the pandemic and among the first to begin coming out of the recession. Why was this the case?
Mark Reuss: In general, that’s usually the case during economic upturns and downturns, as people in the Detroit area have long known. Big-ticket items are hit first in any recession, and other than houses, automobiles are the biggest ticket items around. As for the pandemic, the manufacturing segment of the economy was hard-hit early because we had to shut down to protect our employees and their families. Fortunately, we were able to restart relatively quickly, thanks to our rigorous safety protocols and dedicated workforce.
TDB: What were some of the steps GM took, in particular, to pull through the recession? And it seems that automakers, in general, cooperated more this time, in some ways similar to how they did so during World War II. Thoughts?
Reuss: The World War II “Arsenal of Democracy” comparison is an apt one. The team at GM makes me proud every day, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been prouder of them than when I saw what we were able to accomplish at the outset of the pandemic. Once we got involved with Ventec, we committed to converting our Kokomo, Indiana facility to ventilator production and quickly sourced the parts needed and got to work. Soon we were building a ventilator every seven minutes, on our way to fulfilling the 30,000-unit government contract in 154 days. It was a Herculean task, and now when we describe how fast we should move on something we refer to it as “ventilator speed.” And through it all, we never wavered from our commitment to EVs and realigning our product portfolio. In fact, we doubled down.
Current issues facing the industry
TDB: The semiconductor shortage is a case of unintended consequences. What have you learned from this? How will you apply this and other lessons from the pandemic moving forward?
Reuss: The chip shortage has really reinforced the creativity and agility of our teams to manage just about any issue. We plan for all kinds of scenarios, and I think anybody who looks at our balance sheet would have to say we are weathering the storms pretty well. It sounds cliché to say, “Expect the unexpected.” But what else could be the lesson of the last year or two? And who knows what’s going to be next? You can’t just sit around and wait for the locusts to roll in — you have to plan proactively and resolve to react quickly and decisively to anything. In other words, fundamental agility is core to GM and I think we have that today more than ever.
TDB: Is GM (and the auto industry, more broadly.) facing the same issue hiring enough workers as much of American business is? Why? And how are you addressing this?
Reuss: We’re in hiring mode, and we’ve gotten very creative in how we reach potential candidates. We’re using traditional media and especially social media. We’re hosting on-site job fairs and asking our current team to reach out to their friends and families. We are also creating videos to really show people the jobs, and show them that our facilities are high-tech, great places to work. We’re also leveraging our community partnerships — local chambers, rotary clubs, schools. We’re trying to reach people any way and every way we can. Our vision of Zero Emissions, Zero Crashes, and Zero Congestion is something that many potential employees can really understand and embrace.
TDB: The latest wave of COVID has hit hard and fast. Are you surprised by this? How are you addressing this? And, with still other, potentially more dangerous variants coming, how concerned are you and what are you doing to minimize the impact?
Reuss: I think anyone who has been surprised isn’t paying attention. This is an insidious virus with multiple variants and it’s not going to go away on its own. That said, I have complete faith in the GM health and safety team, including our corporate medical director, Dr. Jeff Hess, and our vice president of global workplace safety, Jim Glynn. Under their leadership, we continue to adapt and make changes to our policies in accordance with relevant health and safety protocols issued by authorities. We’ve also introduced our version of the future of work — Work Appropriately. That simply means wherever and whenever possible, our team members will work in the environment that leads to the safest and best results for the business. They have the opportunity to model their work based on their business and personal needs.
TDB: Beyond COVID, what have you learned, and what are you doing, both personally and, as a company, to help keep the economic recovery going and accelerate it?
Reuss: We view electric vehicles as a growth business, and believe the best way General Motors can keep the recovery going is by doing exactly what we’re doing — leading the charge toward an all-electric future by launching new EVs, pushing for EV adoption and infrastructure installation and keeping Americans employed by the tens of thousands. We think it will all happen more quickly than most can imagine. Three years ago we decided to engineer dedicated battery-electric vehicle architectures and commit our resources to an all-electric future. We made those decisions ahead of many other companies and it is now coming to fruition.
Sustainability through all-electric vehicles
TDB: You’ll be talking about “sustainability” at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference. There are several ways to look at this term. How much of a challenge will it be to sustain a recovery, especially considering all the headwinds?
Reuss: For the purposes of the Mackinac talk, the way to look at sustainability is in the context of helping the planet and fighting climate change. The best way to do that is to move as quickly as possible toward a zero-emissions world … and the best way to do that is to transition to EVs — be it fuel cell or battery electric. GM is helping to deliver an inclusive EV ecosystem that can eventually put everyone in an EV. And we aspire to eliminate tailpipe emissions from our light-duty vehicles by 2035 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2040. This is the path to sustainability and we’re working hard and investing heavily to move the company, the industry, and the world down that path.
TDB: President Biden announced automotive sustainability plans this month, including targets for EV sales. Can GM meet the targets? How tough will they be and what will it take?
Reuss: We will have the best portfolio of electric vehicles on the planet, at all price points, everywhere we sell them. And that’s because we have the best people designing, engineering and building them, and we have the versatile Ultium platform that allows us the flexibility to build a broad portfolio of EVs at minimum cost and maximum scale. Once we put customers in those vehicles, they’re going to absolutely love the EV ownership experience, because we’re going to make it as seamless and convenient as possible for them. And we’ve made significant investments in some of the charging infrastructure that will be necessary to spur adoption. I recently went to Lordstown, Ohio, as our first Ultium cell plant comes to life. I have been to most of our plants — but this site is something to behold. It is the most profound display of industrial might I have seen, and our people who are making it happen are just remarkable.
TDB: Following on this: There’s long been pushback on issues like cleaner emissions and alternative energy. You personally, and GM as a company, seem to be taking a different position: that going green can be GOOD for business. Can you talk about this?
Reuss: Personally, I love to drive. And if you’ve ever gotten behind the wheel of an EV, you know what a blast it is to drive one. The seamless, silent burst of acceleration is fantastic. We’ve known that since we did EV1 25 years ago. The sticking point with EVs has never been performance. It’s been range and cost. We have advanced so far, so fast, in both of those areas that now we can make a great business case for going all-electric. When you can do that, and you have a leader with the vision of Mary Barra, the decision becomes easy. We can lead the world to an all-electric future, make our customers happy in the process and turn a profit doing it. I’ve never been more excited to come to work. It is growth. Core growth.