Despite Earnings, GM’s Barra Is Already Leaving a Mark

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Carlos Osorio/APGeneral Motors CEO Mary BarraBy Philip LeBeau

More than a few analysts were curious to see how Mary Barra would handle delivering bad news on her first earnings call as CEO of General Motors (GM), when she reported that fourth-quarter profit had come in well below expectations.

What those analysts got was a vintage dose of Barra being Barra.

Take the following exchange between Barra and Morgan Stanley (MS) analyst Adam Jonas.

Jonas: “If you were to isolate the single biggest challenge or threat facing the company — both in your domestic market and then separately in your international markets — love to hear your thoughts.”

Barra: “Well, I guess I will … “

Jonas: “Keep in mind, I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy, so sorry.”

Barra: “OK, and I’m a glass-half-full kind of person, so I would kind of characterize it as opportunities. I mean, clearly, I think we’ve got a strong product cadence. I think we’re getting the recognition in the product cadence, but we need to continue to build our brands.”

The bottom line: Barra is not going to change the game plan for expanding GM’s business.

No-Drama Mary

What stands out about Barra’s first earnings call is that it was kind of boring. Did GM earnings fall far short of analyst estimates? You bet. But this call was all about Barra and new CFO Chuck Stevens emphasizing the automaker’s growth plan (and restructuring plan for Europe) were not changing.

Time and again, the CEO told analysts that her focus was making sure GM is profitable wherever it does business around the world.

“I think we have a strong foundation, but now we really need to take advantage of it,” she said.

It was a simple message that connected with Wall Street.

Joe Spak, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, thinks she did a good job with her first earnings call.

“Mary left me with the impression she’s got a great grasp of what’s going on with the business, what needs to get done to get GM from where they are right now to where they want to be,” he said.

Shine That Spotlight Elsewhere

While Barra has been CEO for less than a month, she is not one who clamors for the spotlight. In fact, she’s shown herself to be willing to let other executives handle product launches or take the lead with quarterly earnings.

In this case, Stevens did media interviews explaining the earnings miss. On the analyst call, he handled more questions than Barra.

But more importantly, when she speaks publicly as CEO, the message is always the same: We know what we need to do to take GM to the next level.

We have heard that message from GM executives in the past. Unfortunately, they either failed to deliver or were out of the C-suite before they could make a lasting impression.

Now Barra has a chance to show that GM can truly do things differently.

And if she’s right, the spotlight will find her, whether she wants it or not.

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