DETROIT – Mary Barra is very literate in GM corporate speak. But there are times she speaks very plainly.
Not too long ago, at a conference about powerful women in business, she relayed this simple message she had shared with her staff: No more crappy cars.
The world found out Tuesday that Barra will become the first female CEO of a U.S. automaker when she takes over as CEO of General Motors on Jan. 15.
Here are five things people may not know about the 51-year-old GM veteran:
— DEEP TIES: Barra was born and raised in the Detroit suburbs and steeped in the car industry. Her father, now deceased, was a die maker at GM for 39 years. She went to college at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), a sort of automotive preparatory school in Flint, Mich., where she earned a bachelor’s of science in electrical engineering and began her GM career as part of a student co-op program. Her first job, at 18, was at the Pontiac, Mich., plant that made the Pontiac Fiero sports car.
— NO BEAN COUNTER: Barra is the first engineer to run GM since CEO Bob Stempel left in 1992. The two men who followed Stempel, Rick Wagoner and Fritz Henderson, were finance executives. Ed Whitacre and Dan Akerson were brought in from the telecommunications and finance industries by the federal government, which inherited an ownership stake as part of GM’s bailout and bankruptcy. Barra has worked in just about every corner of GM, but has little experience in finance and the sales and marketing of cars and trucks, two key areas she’ll oversee as CEO. Whitacre, who promoted Barra to head of human resources, isn’t worried.
“This is a smart lady,” Whitacre said. “She can overcome all that. And what she doesn’t know, she’ll pick up quite quickly.”
— DUE FOR A PAY RAISE: As GM’s product chief, Barra has made less than comparable executives at other companies, according to the company’s compensation committee. That’s partly because the government was capping executive salaries while it owned part of GM. On Monday, the government sold the last of its GM shares. Akerson said Tuesday that the company plans to change its salary metrics to focus more on vehicle quality. The value of Barra’s compensation totalled $4.85 million last year, according to GM’s latest proxy statement. That included a $750,000 base salary plus stock units.
— FAMILY MATTERS: Many GM insiders say Barra admirably balances her work and home lives. Barra is married with two teenage children, one boy and one girl. She has been known to end meetings to go pick up her kids, and when they were young their artwork was proudly displayed in her office. In an interview with Stanford’s alumni magazine, she said she drove a Cadillac Escalade because it had enough room for her son’s hockey gear.
CAR CRAZY: Barra’s first car was a Chevrolet Chevette, which she bought to get her to and from her job at the plant. These days, she tools around in a new Cadillac CTS, one of several cars that have been released during her time as GM’s global product chief. But her real love is the sporty Chevrolet Camaro. She and her husband have owned several over the years.