Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, at the New York Stock Exchange, Nov. 17, 2022.
DETROIT — Monday marks 10 years of Mary Barra’s tenure as CEO of General Motors, ushering in a crucial year for the Detroit automaker and for her legacy.
Over the past decade, Barra has been a dynamic executive, guiding the company through high-profile crises as the first female leader of a major automaker. Under her stewardship, GM has seen record profits, cultural changes and major achievements, including beating Wall Street earnings forecasts in 34 of the last 35 quarters, according to FactSet.
She’s regularly ranked as one of the most powerful business leaders in the world, with former and current executives describing her as a “visionary” and “inclusive” leader who has always remained focused on the task at hand.
That task, for much of Barra’s time at GM, has been to push the envelope and transform the largest U.S. automaker for sustained success. But her main business plans of late have failed to meet internal or external expectations, including her own.
Initiatives involving electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles have come under pressure, with EV rollout and demand slower than expected and GM majority-owned Cruise in crisis. The EV and AV businesses, along with emerging software initiatives, were major parts of lofty financial targets earmarked for 2025 and 2030.
GM says it can still achieve its goals — among them to double revenue by 2030 — by shifting focus, but it’s yet to detail how, without the help of its stated growth drivers.
GM’s stock under CEO Mary Barra’s 10-year tenure.
“I always thought the EV and AV strategies were awfully ambitious and were more to show Wall Street that they were becoming a ‘tech company’ more than an auto company, trying to imitate Tesla too much in many ways,” said Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst with Cox Automotive, who previously covered GM as a reporter starting in the 1980s.
Public criticism of Barra has been scant, but Wall Street and investors are speaking through the company’s stock price.
Famed investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which took a major stake in GM in 2012, sold all its shares in the company without explanation during the third quarter of 2023.
GM stock closed Friday at $35.26 per share, down 10.5% under Barra’s tenure and off by nearly 50% from a high of more than $67 on Jan. 5, 2022.
GM appeared to be the front-runner in recent years to challenge U.S. leader Tesla in electric vehicles with its new EV architecture and billions in investments.
Barra surprised many in 2021 by announcing that GM would end production of traditional internal combustion engine vehicles and exclusively offer consumers EVs by 2035. At the time, GM promised to transform the company and automotive industry through what Barra called “visionary investments,” including what would become $35 billion toward electric and autonomous vehicles by 2025.
She touted GM’s growth opportunities, including its next-generation “Ultium” EV architecture, and many other major automakers followed suit and announced similar electrification goals.
But GM has rolled out its next-gen EV models at a snail’s pace amid production snags. And its most recent model — the Chevy Blazer EV — has paused sales due to significant software problems.
GM’s EV sales last year totaled 75,883 units, or 2.9% of the company’s overall sales. It was third in EV sales behind Tesla, and Hyundai Motor, which includes Kia, according to Cox Automotive. However, a vast majority of GM’s EV sales were from its now-discontinued Chevrolet Bolt models.
Broad consumer demand for EVs hasn’t materialized the way GM or others had hoped, and many automakers have withdrawn or walked back the EV ambitions they set just a few years ago.
Mary Barra, GM chair and CEO, speaks during the unveiling of the Cadillac Celestiq electric sedan in Los Angeles, Oct. 17, 2022.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images
Barra said in December that while there’s still a path to exclusively offer EVs by 2035, customer demand will ultimately determine the pace of the company’s EV transition.
“We still have a plan in place that allows us to be all light-duty vehicles by 2035. But again … we’ll adjust based on where the customer is and where demand is,” she said. “But I do believe this transition will happen over a period of time.”
As early as 2017, GM’s EV focus was on getting as many electric vehicles to market as possible, promising to launch a mix of at least 20 new all-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles globally by 2023. Then, in November 2020, that goal post shifted, and the automaker said it would introduce at least 30 new EVs by 2025 and spend $27 billion — an amount that was later upped to $35 billion — on electric and autonomous vehicles.
GM has not released exact details about that spending, but executives last year confirmed the automaker was pushing back or cutting EV spending by billions.
In October, GM pulled its near-term EV targets that included selling 400,000 electric vehicles in North America between 2022 and mid-2024 as well as producing 100,000 EVs in North America during the second half of 2023.
The Detroit automaker and Honda Motor also canceled plans to jointly develop affordable EVs, which would have been a $5 billion capital project, and GM opted to instead revive the canceled Chevrolet Bolt as a new model in 2025.
GM maintains it will achieve low profit margins on EVs by 2025 as well as increase North American capacity for the vehicles to 1 million units by then. The automaker expects to maintain an 8% to 10% adjusted profit margin in North America through the transition.
Taking the wheel
If EVs have been struggling to capture consumer attention, autonomous vehicles and GM’s Cruise unit have been commanding it — but not for the reasons Barra would like.
Late last year Cruise transformed nearly overnight from one of GM’s greatest business opportunities into a growing liability.
Cruise, of which GM owns more than 80% and which Barra chairs, has confronted a wave of problems and investigations sparked by an Oct. 2 accident in which a pedestrian in San Francisco was dragged 20 feet by one of the unit’s self-driving cars after the person was struck by another vehicle.
Investigations into the incident are ongoing, GM said Friday.
Since the incident, Cruise’s robotaxi fleet has been grounded, pending the results of independent safety probes. Local and federal governments have launched their own investigations. Cruise leadership has been gutted: Its cofounders resigned and nine other leaders were ousted. And the venture laid off 24% of its workforce.
Beyond all of that, GM is massively cutting spending and growth plans for the business, including pausing production of a new robotaxi.
Mary Barra, chair and chief executive officer of General Motors, during an Automotive Press Association event in Detroit, Dec. 4, 2023.
Jeff Kowalsky | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Barra said during an Automotive Press Association meeting in Detroit in December that GM is “very focused on righting the ship” at Cruise.
Cruise was considered to be among the leaders in autonomous vehicles alongside Alphabet-backed Waymo, outlasting many other companies that have abandoned the segment.
The turmoil at Cruise also calls into question GM’s own plans to offer personal autonomous vehicles by as early as mid-decade, as well as the company’s next-generation driver-assistance system Ultra Cruise.
The Ultra Cruise system was initially planned to debut in 2023 and eventually be capable of driving itself in 95% of scenarios, but progress has been unclear.
Two sources familiar with the system told CNBC that the automaker is ending the Ultra Cruise program. One source said GM has decided to instead focus on the current Super Cruise system and expanding its capabilities rather than having two different, similarly named systems.
Darryll Harrison Jr., GM vice president of global technology communications, declined to comment on specifics of Ultra Cruise but said: “GM continues to expand access to and increase the capability of Super Cruise, our advanced driver assistance technology. Our focus remains on safely deploying this technology across GM brands and more vehicle categories while expanding to even more roads.”
Barra took over as CEO of GM in January 2014 when the company was still emerging from government ownership as a result of a 2009 bankruptcy and decades of mismanagement. She was brought in both to deal with the ghosts of GM’s past and to guide the automaker into a cleaner future.
“Mary was one of the few people in the original team that I thought understood that this thing was broken,” Barra’s predecessor Dan Akerson told CNBC in 2022.
GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson, left, announces he is stepping down during a town hall meeting at the GM Renaissance Center Global Headquarters in Detroit, Dec. 10, 2013. Listening are Mary Barra, the new CEO; Dan Ammann, the new president; and Mark Reuss, the new executive vice president for global product development, purchasing and supply chain.
Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors
Barra’s philosophy as CEO and chair, a position she’s held since 2016, has been to address problems head-on. She routinely says the “best time to solve a problem is the minute you know about it.”
That philosophy has served her and GM well thus far, as Barra has navigated what seems like an unending string of crises in the past decade, the second-longest tenure of any CEO in the company’s 115-year history, after its founder.
Barra managed a recall of roughly 30 million vehicles beginning in 2014 after an ignition switch defect caused 120 deaths and led to a complete restructuring of GM’s safety operations.
“The way that she took the ignition switch recall and used it to really drive some deep change into the organization — she shook some things up,” said Stephanie Brinley, associate director of research at S&P Global Mobility. “And I think they’ve made a difference.”
Barra guided the company through the 2014 parts crisis and initiated several company restructurings across the globe, including exiting many unprofitable markets. That fat-trimming was in preparation for an expected disruption from the “mobility” or tech industries and the likes of Lyft, Uber, Apple and Google.
And, she fended off two activist-shareholder campaigns, including from David Einhorn’s Greenlight Capital, which pushed for seats on GM’s board and to initiate a split of GM’s common stock into two classes to help boost its share price.
Einhorn declined to comment through a spokesman on those efforts, Barra or GM, which the firm exited in 2020.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 1, 2014.
The more recent challenges facing GM — Cruise, EV uncertainty, shifting priorities — play to Barra’s strengths. She’s discerning in the face of crisis and swift to cull where needed.
“She’s a good leader, and she’s a good listener. But she’s also tough when it comes to making difficult decisions for the shareholders. So far, what I’ve seen, she’s done an outstanding job,” former GM executive Gary Cowger, a mentor of Barra’s who died last year, previously told CNBC.
But as the headwinds compound and some on Wall Street lose confidence, 2024 is shaping up to be either the cherry on top of Barra’s career or an unexpected dent in her track record.
“The shift to EV and autonomous is one that’s just not that simple,” Brinley said. “It’s going to be a struggle for awhile and the success or failure on that is probably not really going to be known very well until well after her tenure.”
When asked in December about her tenure and legacy, Barra, 62, said she doesn’t think about it too much. She’s more focused on what’s in front of her.
“I’m an engineer, problem solver, let’s move forward,” she said. “I’m humbled and it’s a privilege to lead General Motors at this point in time. We’re in the midst of this really once-in-a-generation transformation and there’s so much that can be done.”