Ignition crisis is first major test for GM's Barra

  • Article by: NATHAN BOMEYN , Detroit Free Press
  • Updated: March 30, 2014 - 11:10 AM

The CEO and her newly reshuffled executive team walk into a storm.

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Mary Barra, a 33-year General Motors veteran who became CEO on Jan. 15, will testify before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday.

Photo: Carlos Osorio, Associated Press

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Although new CEO Mary Barra is leading General Motors Co.’s response to its ignition switch crisis, customers will judge the company largely on how its recently reshuffled leadership team handles the situation.

The recall, which represents GM’s biggest crisis since bankruptcy, will test the mettle of a newly minted leadership team that boasts of a strong, collaborative working relationship.

It places two of Barra’s closest allies — quality and customer engagement chief Alicia Boler-Davis and global engineering chief John Calabrese — squarely in the middle of the storm.

The situation amplifies the importance of a cooperative relationship between Barra and longtime friend Mark Reuss, who was considered a top candidate for the CEO position.

And it will test the crisis-management skills of Jeff Boyer, a new member of the senior leadership team as global safety chief, reporting to Calabrese.

As the company’s ignition switch supplier, ­Delphi, ramps up production to deliver replacement parts, one of the team’s first moves was to reconfigure GM’s recently consolidated call center operation in Warren, Mich., to handle recall inquiries.

The call center, dubbed the customer engagement center, has taken about 24,000 calls from customers asking about the recall over the last few weeks. The company assigned about 100 of the center’s 300 workers to handle recall questions.

Boler-Davis said efficient communication with concerned customers is a way to restore confidence in the company.

“It shows that we’re available, we’re here to help,” she said. “We’re wanting to be accessible to them, whether it’s through telephone, whether it’s through social media, whether they’re wanting to send us e-mails.”

With Barra acknowledging last week that GM needs to fix the process through which it responds to vehicle flaws, the pressure falls on Calabrese, Boler-Davis and Boyer to devise new strategies.

Boler-Davis said she’ll wait for the results of GM’s internal investigation before reshaping processes. “We will identify where things broke down and we will get things addressed,” she said. “We will look at what needs to happen.”

From a product design perspective, GM’s engineers and safety team will work collaboratively to ensure this doesn’t happen again, officials said.

Reuss said GM would “react very quickly with improvements and changes” under Boyer’s leadership.

“Jeff is a passionate safety zealot, and he really has been involved with just about every part of the car, including interiors and the computer data engineering of safety,” Reuss told reporters last week.

GM has acknowledged that it failed to adequately respond to the ignition switch defect that affects 1.6 million small cars from the 2003 through 2007 model years and was blamed for 31 crashes and at least 12 deaths. The situation spawned lawsuits and federal investigations, with Barra set to testify before Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Engineers identified an issue early on, but GM executives never got the message or didn’t respond adequately, according to records that have surfaced since the automaker ordered the recall in February.

Boler-Davis said she’s confident that GM employees feel empowered to raise concerns about safety problems with high-level executives.

“What I’m doing personally is to make sure the people here on the team, the employees, if they know of issues they should raise them. We have a responsibility to raise issues, and we should bring them forward,” she said.

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