It’s been a while since General Motors has been at the centre of attention during its home Detroit motor show for the right reasons; recession, plunging sales, bankruptcy filings and a hard-earned recovery have been more the order of the day in recent years.
Yet this year it is poised to be the story of the show, and not necessarily because of the metal on its stands. By appointing Mary Barra as chief executive late last year, it propelled itself in to the global spotlight, and now it has a balancing act on its hands.
In case you didn’t know, Barra is the first woman to head GM. That, in itself, is (sadly, you may argue) big news. Moreover, she’s a GM lifer – the daughter of a GM worker who spent his life as a dye maker, she joined the company at 18 and has spent the past 33 years working her way through the ranks. Here is the American Dream in action.
Those that know her say she has a sharp brain and a winning manner. Trouble is, America’s appetite for finding out more about her isn’t being sated; search the Internet and you’ll find that since her elevation she’s been invited to be interviewed by everyone from the heavyweight automotive journals (us included) through to the biggest lifestyle programmes in the world.
So what does she do? A stint on Oprah would surely do GM the world of good, but does it really befit someone making there way at the head of a heavyweight industrial organisation? What happens when she has to lay off a workforce? Inevitably they’d turn round and suggest she spent less time schmoozing on TV and more on keeping the company’s rising fortunes (in some markets) heading in the right direction.
The Detroit motor show is crunch time; she can hardly hide from the world’s media at the firm’s own biggest showcase event. There’s a press conference to present, media scrum to negotiate and a million interview requests to meet, and keep on message. Her predecessor, Dan Ackerson, steps down: now, without excuse, is her time in the spotlight.
People who've met her say she is quiet but brilliantly gifted. Both attributes would serve a male chief executive well, but Barra faces a much tougher time, even in these supposedly enlightened times. How she plays it over the coming days is going to be fascinating to see.