Today, Mary Barra becomes CEO of the world’s largest automaker. While it’s a milestone for women engineers, it also marks a “back to the future” moment for General Motors. This is the first time in decades that an engineer with a strong manufacturing background is at the helm of GM.
I suggested doing this five years ago (and many ASSEMBLY readers supported the idea), when GM was in the midst of its darkest hour (see “Time to Put an Engineer Back in Charge?”). In my blog posting, I questioned why one of the world’s largest manufacturing companies was routinely run by executives with backgrounds in accounting and finance, but with little or no experience on the plant floor.
I also pointed out that some of GM’s greatest leaders of the past had hands-on assembly line experience before they moved into the corner office.
For instance, Charles Wilson held an engineering degree and served as vice president in charge of GM’s vast parts manufacturing operation during the 1930s. Before joining GM in the early 1920s, William Knudsen established a reputation as a production whiz at Ford Motor Co. and later transformed GM’s assembly process. Even the legendary Alfred Sloan had a degree in engineering.
Barra has similar credentials. In fact, according to my research, she’s the first head honcho at GM with an engineering degree since Robert Stempel more than 20 years ago. Barra holds a degree in electrical engineering from Kettering University.
During her 34-year GM career, Barra has served as vice president of global manufacturing engineering; plant manager of Detroit Hamtramck Assembly; and executive director of competitive operations engineering. She most recently served as executive vice president of global product development, purchasing and supply chain.