Mary Barra, the General Motors chief executive who has been in the hot seat since taking over the company at the beginning of the year, gave an exclusive interview to Matt Lauer on TODAY Thursday. She has been a Capitol Hill staple recently, appearing last week for her second time before a House energy committee over GM missteps in handling the February recall of 2.6 million cars with defective ignition switches. The faulty parts have been linked to at least 13 deaths and 54 accidents since 2009 and have led to numerous lawsuits.
Why she's under fire:
General Motors is preparing for yet another recall — this time affecting about 33,000 Chevrolet Cruze sedans with potentially defective air bags. Barra said “it’s possible” there could be more recalls if necessary, and that "if we find an issue, we’re going to deal with it."
Lawmakers last week admonished Barra over her company’s foot-dragging in resolving the problem, demanding to know why the company took more than a decade to warn the nation about safety hazards it clearly knew about. They also tore into the findings over the topic revealed recently in an investigative report conducted by a private attorney hired by GM.
In her own words:
- On whether there was any criminal intent behind the delay of the recall of the cars with bad switches: “I think that’s for the courts to decide. I can tell you, I’ve taken action in the people that I don’t think should be a part of the company, aren’t here anymore," she said, later adding: "Clearly, there've been mistakes made and we’re dealing with the situation."
- On whether GM hid details: "I don’t really think there was a cover up. I think what we had, and it was covered in the report, there were silos of information, so people had bits and pieces and didn’t come forward with the information or didn’t act with a sense of urgency, and it simply was unacceptable."
- On whether the recalls were delayed because of concerns over financial impact: "Absolutely not... People didn’t understand the safety aspects of it, and that, too, we’ve made substantial changes so that will never happen again."
- On wanting to make sure the company learns from its mistakes: “We need to make sure we don’t forget because that’s the only surefire way to make sure we never repeat it again, and that’s what’s most important. We want to be a company that our customers trust. When they get behind the wheel, when they get into one of our products, we can’t forget what happened.”
- On how to change a company culture with a history of lax communication and slow decision making: “It’s by the way we act. It’s the ownership we’re taking. It’s doing the right thing for the customer. All of those things are communicating to employees that we want them to do the right thing – and they’re stepping up.”
- On talking to grieving family members of people who died in GM vehicles: "It was incredibly difficult to know that mistakes were made that caused people to lose loved ones or to have serious physical injuries. If I could turn back the clock, I would."
- On taking her job and immediately stepping into controversy: "Through tough periods of time and General Motors has had tough periods in the past, I know the many women of General Motors, the vast majority, come to work every day, they do their best. So as difficult as it is, I’m more committed than ever to make sure we make this company what I know it can be."
You should know:
Barra made history in January when she became the first woman to lead one of the nation’s top three automobile companies. She assumed the role after spending three decades rising up through the company ranks. She also inherited a company with a legacy of bad management, poor communication and financial and legal woes related to, among other factors, a 2009 bankruptcy filing.
Barra denied that being a woman, and someone who could provide a softer image for the company, had anything to do with her becoming CEO. "It's absolutely not true. I believe I was selected for this job based on my qualifications," she told Lauer on Thursday. (Update: Matt Lauer shared his thoughts on Facebook following this morning's interview.)
Just weeks after Barra took over, GM announced its massive recall in Chevy Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small calls with bad ignition switches that sometimes would shut down cars while they were on the road.