Until two years ago,Mary Barra,the incoming CEO of General Motors,was little known outside the automaker. But her rapid rise inside the company,including a 2011 promotion to senior vice-president,was signalled more than a decade ago.
Barra,a 33-year GM veteran who turns 52 on Christmas Eve,was marked for future success in the companys Progression and Succession reviews,annual surveys designed to identify young high-potential employees,former GM executives said.
She was always at the top of that list in the late 1990s,said Don Hackworth,who retired as head of GMs North American Car Group in 2001.
Barras early identification as a high-pot executive led to a job in the corporate suite,as vice-chairman Harry Pearces assistant,when she was still in her 30s.
It was a great opportunity to get an overview of how the corporation works, said Michael Losh,GMs former chief financial officer.
Barras long tenure at GM the Michigan native started as an 18-year-old engineering intern at Pontiac,where her father was a die maker for nearly four decades might have raised suspicions that she was too much a part of the old regime,which was forced to seek bankruptcy protection and a US government bailout in 2009.
But she wasnt part of the established order that destroyed the company,said a Wall Street investment banker who has worked with GM for decades. Shes the best of the old GM and shes a pretty modern thinker in terms of how to compete in todays world.
Former GM executive Lynn Myers,one of the first women in Detroit to run a car division before her 2004 retirement,said: This is not business as usual at GM. Its not like the past. Mary is not afraid to shake the bushes.
Executives cite Barras radical restructuring over the past two years of GMs sprawling and often dysfunctional global product development organisation.
She does what she thinks is necessary to take action if something needs fixing, said Gary Cowger,GMs former group vice-president who retired in 2010.
Barra,the mother of a teenage son and daughter,is described by those who know her as approachable,unflappable and inclusive.
She can be under huge pressure and she just never loses her calmness, said a person close to Barra. She thinks things through. When she speaks,I listen.
Neil De Koker,another former GM executive who sits with Barra on the board of Kettering University,said: She has great people skills. She is easy to talk to and is an attentive listener. When she talks to students,you can tell shes a mom. And thats not the way you normally would describe the CEO of one of the worlds largest manufacturing companies.
The person close to Barra described how she deftly handled the complicated and potentially traumatic overhaul of GMs engineering and development groups.
You know how sometimes people come in and change things and bodies are left in the wake? Thats not Mary. She might fire somebody (and) theyd be hugging her and thanking her. She talks a lot about how important winning the hearts and minds of employees is. I see her as a very motivational leader.
The issue of Barras gender she is the first woman CEO in a century-old industry that has been dominated by men is mentioned frequently,but usually dismissed as the deciding factor in her promotion to GMs top job.
These firsts of women CEOs are no longer newsworthy, said Bonnie Baha,portfolio manager at DoubleLine Capital. The focus should be on her qualifications,which appear to be uniquely suited to running GM.
Steven Rattner,the former head of US President Barack Obamas task force who helped steer GMs 2009 bailout,said: I have absolutely no doubt they picked (Barra) because she was the best person… This company has been through so much that the idea that they would just do something to make history is unimaginable.