A Brief History
On December 10, 2013, Mary Barra became the first woman appointed head of an automobile company when she became CEO of General Motors Corporation. GM is a giant company with a convoluted bureaucracy that has taken it from being the biggest, most important company in the world to being a blundering corporate joke that needed a government bailout to survive.
From 1931 to 2007, GM led the world in auto sales. In the meantime, Toyota of Japan has dethroned GM as the biggest producer of motor vehicles. GM is still right near the top though, but its market share is nothing near what it used to be. Failure on GM’s part to heed changing market conditions allowed foreign companies such as Toyota to take over much of the small-car market. Abominable cars such as the Cadillac Cimmaron, the Chevrolet Vega and a pathetic attempt at large-scale production of front-wheel drive X-body cars such as the Chevy Citation and then the GM10 W-body cars like the Buick Century bled off much of GM’s business.
Its size made GM arrogant, and officials were quoted as saying, “What’s good for the country is what’s good for GM,” and vice versa (often misquoted!) and that GM would tell the people what they wanted. Further failures included: making the horrible small cars, the Vega and then the Chevette; taking the beautiful, best-selling 1977 Cutlass and turning it into a boxy dud; converting gasoline engines which could not stand up to the compression of diesel operation into diesel engines (what a fiasco!). All these miscalculations opened the door wide for foreign (especially Japanese) car brands.
In 2013 and 2014, after having recovered somewhat after the “Obama bailout,” GM and its new CEO Mary Barra faced the growing problem of faulty ignitions and had to recall millions of cars. One of Mary Barra’s first tasks in March of 2014 was an especially daunting one; meeting with the families of those killed by the defective GM cars. As 2014 unfolded, it began to appear that GM had long been aware of the problem and did not take action soon enough, perhaps costing lives in the process. Barra certainly has her hands full with this disaster on top of the normal stress of running a giant company.
To illustrate just how big a company GM is (and was), here are some facts: GM employs over 200,000 people in 37 countries; GM makes about 13 brands of vehicles; GM sells these vehicles in about 120 countries; in 2013, GM sold almost 10 million cars and made about $155 billion! That is serious big business, especially when you consider that the company has already retired so many of its brands (GM has an astonishing 32 former brands and 12 former subsidiaries). Recent GM brands that are not longer being produced include Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn, Geo, Hummer and Daewoo.
Going from a global giant and bully to a confused and unwieldy buffoon has been hard on GM and its employees. They seem, however, to have weathered every storm so far and have managed to stay at or near the top and actually still produce many good-looking, quality cars and trucks. Good luck Ms. Barra, you will need it! (History and Headlines Note: Mary Barra received her BS college degree from Kettering University and an MBA from Stanford.)
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For more information, please see…
Colby, Laura. Road to Power: How GM’s Mary Barra Shattered the Glass Ceiling (Bloomberg). Wiley, 2015.
Vlasic, Bill. Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Automakers–GM, Ford, and Chrysler. William Morrow, 2011.