DETROIT (AP) — It’s clear that General Motors is no longer being run by bean counters, especially when it comes to developing cars and trucks.
Mark Reuss, the incoming head of product development, is a mechanical engineer who has worked for the company more than three decades. The current product chief, Mary Barra, another GM veteran, is an electrical engineer who will officially become CEO on Wednesday.
Under Barra, GM has cranked out a string of winning products, especially small and large cars. The quality of GM vehicles has risen when measured by J.D. Power and Associates. For example, the revamped Chevrolet Impala full-size sedan, which used to be a dull rental car, won Consumer Reports’ top rating. The magazine said the car was as good as a top-line Audi.
Reuss, speaking with reporters at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday, spoke gleefully about engineers running the product show, and was candid about how GM made poor cars when they didn’t. He also spoke about what might change at GM when Barra takes over, and why it’s important to have women in leadership positions at a car company.
Here are his answers to three questions, edited for length and clarity:
Q: What are you doing differently in product development compared with five years ago?
REUSS: “We go through an extensive evaluation on the (driving) dynamics and safety side, so that before we go into production, we see every stage of every car in development. We can stop and correct if someone (a competitor) introduces something we haven’t seen before, so we can stop and we can beat them. That process was not in place at all. I think that we know a lot better what matters to a customer and what doesn’t on a cost basis. We had Vehicle Line Executives that were administrators in product development instead of executive chief engineers that go after winning with the car. Administrators that may or may not have been an engineer, that maybe looked at acceptable trade-offs in terms of a matrix that flat-out didn’t work. We saw things that were important to customers that were not put in cars. And that’s a big mistake.
Q: How do you expect the direction of GM to change under Mary Barra’s leadership, especially from someone from the product instead of the financial side?
REUSS: “We experienced the product mistakes. We experienced the car development mistakes from a financial standpoint that we made in the past. That depth of understanding of those mistakes and what we’ve done, of turning that to a different place, is pretty profound on how you run the business. I think those things will serve her really well in the decisions that we make on different regions and different portfolios and different approaches to product development and the success of the company.
Q: Is it important that the industry get more women in leadership positions?
REUSS: We don’t sell to a bunch of white males in the Midwest. Nor should we develop and sell and have a company that is made up of that at all. We really have in the last four years worked hard on a different recruitment and talent approach in General Motors as well. This is actually pretty embarrassing, but there were schools that we got most of our people from, done on a cost-per-person-hired basis. Which immediately drives you to schools that are closest to you with the same kind of people. So Mary and I and a couple other people have really worked hard on creating relationships with schools in different places with different people internationally. I think it’s really important to get those perspectives.
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