It was only three months ago that General Motors’ Chief Executive Mary Barra was nearly crushed by hundreds of journalists at the Detroit auto show in one of the most epic media scrums the industry has ever seen. Back then, it was curiosity about the industry’s first female chief executive that drew the hordes of media to the unveiling of an otherwise lowly pickup truck, elbowing and shoving each other to get a photo or word with the celebrated CEO.
On Tuesday afternoon, the cameras swarmed her again, but this time, it was to grill her on how the automaker has handled the recall of 2.6 million small cars with faulty ignition switches that are blamed for 13 deaths. It was a regular slugfest, with cameramen shouting and jostling for position as Barra tried to exit the stage after a speech at an industry conference in New York.
“Guys, please don’t push each other,” Barra pleaded, as Mark Reuss, GM’s global product development chief, stood with arms outstretched, pushing his hips and shoulders back to try to protect his boss from being trampled. Barra finally ducked into a doorway vestibule, where she could safely stop to answer questions. Standing next to her in the same vestibule, I realized how earthquake victims are able to survive in a pocket of air under a collapsed building.
Barra said GM’s internal investigation is still expected to take 45 to 60 days (which would mean late May), and that the company can’t answer all the questions from government investigators until that internal inquiry is completed. She also said it will take a few months for all 2.6 million affected cars to be repaired, saying its supplier, Delphi, is working quickly to ramp up production of the necessary parts. “We are working as quickly as we can. They will be perfect parts — 100 percent tested. The first replacement parts started shipping to dealers last week.
During her speech, Barra said GM will use a new approach in its product development organization to ensure that its vehicles are the safest in the industry. The new global product integrity team will build on the formula and attention to detail GM has used in recent years to lead the industry in vehicle dynamics, ride and handling. “We will mirror this approach to focus on safety performance,” she said, adding that the group will work closely with GM’s new vice president of global safety, Jeff Boyer.
Barra also tried to steer some attention away from the recall, which has dominated headlines about GM almost from the day she took over as CEO in January. “I think it’s fair to say that much of the progress we have made in the last two months has been overshadowed by the intensity of the recall coverage – but in fact there has been a lot of good news to report,” Barra said.
She deflected most questions about the investigation, including why GM decided to suspend, with pay, two engineers involved with the ignition switch on the Chevrolet Cobalt and other cars dating back to 2005. “Let’s be really really clear. These are real people with real careers. I am personally dedicated to making sure we have the true facts of what happened… If there are issues that need to be addressed, we will. I am not going to speculate because I am focused on the truth.” Barra said “we agonized over that decision,” but said it was right for the company.
As for the recent Saturday Night Live skit satirizing her testimony before Congress on April 1 and 2, Barra said: “I have watched SNL for most of my life. It’s important to retain your sense of humor. But this is a very serious situation.”
As for her judgment of Kate MacKinnon’s impersonation: “I think that’s better left to people other than me.”