In her own words: Mary Barra and the GM recall crisis

New CEO at GM spends her first year dealing with the recall crisis
By Bob Vavra August 12, 2014

It was supposed to be the beginning of a new era at General Motors on Jan. 15, 2014. The iconic global automaker named 31-year company veteran Mary Barra as its new CEO, making her the first woman to lead the global auto manufacturer. On that auspicious day, Barra said, "With an amazing portfolio of cars and trucks and the strongest financial performance in our recent history, this is an exciting time at today’s GM. I’m honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed."

Instead, Barra’s first eight months on the job have been bogged down with a continuing crisis over mechanical and engineering breakdowns of GM cars manufactured in the last 17 years. In 2014, GM has issued more than two dozen separate recall notices, covering more than 27 million GM vehicles manufactured between 1997 and 2014.

The most serious recall issue is a problem with ignition switches on some GM models manufactured between 2005 and 2011. The problem with the switches has been blamed for 13 deaths over the past decade, and sparked a flurry of lawsuits, investigations, congressional inquiries, and additional recalls.

Barra has twice testified before Congress and faced sharp questioning while attempting to assure legislators, stockholders, and customers that GM has learned from the mistakes of the past and will change as it develops its future engineering, safety, and manufacturing processes.

The company hired former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas to investigate the cause of GM’s troubles and to report on solutions. Valukas’ report, issued June 5, was a scathing indictment of past GM practices, and Barra fired 15 GM employees as a result.

Barra has been the visible public face of the GM crisis, and she hasn’t shied away from the controversy, even as the recall notices continued throughout the spring and summer. In her own words, here are her public comments as the GM recall crisis unfolded:

March 31

Submitted testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations:

"I recently held a town hall meeting to formally introduce our new VP of global vehicle safety to the company. We met at our Technical Center, one of the places where the men and women who engineer our vehicles work. They are the brains behind our cars, but they are also the heart of GM.

"It was a tough meeting. Like me, they are disappointed and upset. I could see it in their faces, and could hear it in their voices. They had many of the same questions that I suspect are on your minds. They want to make things better for our customers, and in the process, make GM better.

"That’s what I’m committed to doing."

June 10

Written comments to GM stockholders:

"The Valukas report was drawn from more than 350 interviews with over 230 individuals and more than 41 million documents. The report highlights a company that operated in silos, with a number of individuals seemingly looking for reasons not to act, instead of finding ways to protect our customers.

"Repeatedly, individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch. If this information had been disclosed, I truly believe the company would have dealt with this matter appropriately. "

Even though investigators found no evidence that any employee made a trade-off between safety and cost in the investigation of the Cobalt, it’s clear that no one did enough to protect the basic needs of these customers."

June 18

Submitted testimony to U.S. House Committee on Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations:

"It’s time—in fact, it’s past time—to insist on total accountability and make sure that vital information is shared across all functions in our company…so we can unleash the full power of our 200,000 employees, our 21,000 dealers and our 23,000 suppliers.

"The Valukas report, as you now know, is extremely thorough, brutally tough and deeply troubling. It paints a picture of an organization that failed to handle a complex safety issue in a responsible way. I was deeply saddened and disturbed as I read the report. For those of us who have dedicated our lives to this company, it is enormously painful to have our shortcomings laid out so vividly. There is no way to minimize the seriousness of what Mr. Valukas and his investigators uncovered."

June 30

Press release announcing a recall of an additional 7.4 million vehicles manufactured from 1997 to 2014:

"We undertook what I believe is the most comprehensive safety review in the history of our company because nothing is more important than the safety of our customers. Our customers deserve more than we delivered in these vehicles. That has hardened my resolve to set a new industry standard for vehicle safety, quality and excellence.

"We have worked aggressively to identify and address the major outstanding issues that could impact the safety of our customers. If any other issues come to our attention, we will act appropriately and without hesitation."