By on January 16, 2015

Mary Barra and Chevrolet Volt at NAIAS 2015

Despite the ongoing drop in oil prices, General Motors CEO Mary Barra said her company would stay the course as far as fuel efficiency is concerned.

Per The Detroit Bureau, Barra was interviewed onstage by Automotive News editor-in-chief Keith Crane about her time as GM’s CEO thus far during the 2015 Automotive News World Congress held during this year’s Detroit Auto Show. While she said falling prices weren’t going to alter product plans, she didn’t know what the end result of the situation would end up being.

Barra also addressed the recall parade that took up the majority of 2014, proclaiming that GM has learned its lessons from the recalls, and vowing that “this sort of thing” will never occur in the future. She maintains, however, that she, senior management and top engineers had no clue about the ignition problems that kicked off the parade until it came to light via pre-trial testimony.

As far as GM being a large corporation weighed down by bureaucracy is concerned, Barra said such a view is inaccurate today, from how it conducts conferences, to how it evaluates employees and listens to its customer base.

Finally, she said she keeps an eye on the various subsidiaries GM has around the world, praising the strength of Opel in particular.

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78 Comments on “Barra: Oil Prices Have No Effect On Product Plans...”


  • avatar
    Lie2me

    “Barra also addressed the recall parade that took up the majority of 2014, proclaiming that GM has learned its lessons from the recalls, and vowing that “this sort of thing” will never occur in the future”

    *Cringe*

  • avatar
    DukeMantee

    What Mary said: Oil prices have no effect on our products.

    What Mary really meant: Reality will have no effect upon our spiral into bankruptcy, AGAIN.
    Atta girl Mary, tell it like it ain’t. Keep hope alive in the boardroom,if not in the showroom.

    • 0 avatar
      sirwired

      Yeah, it would totally be a spectacular idea to completely re-jigger the product planning process (which plans vehicles years in advance) because gas is cheap this winter. *sarcasm*

      Having a mix of gas-guzzling trucks and reasonably thrifty cars is a pretty good idea.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        And the fact that they didn’t have competitive small cars ready when the world changed faster than their product cycle is what did them in before.

        The Sloan plan became irrelevant in the early 1990s when the Japanese started selling nice small cars. But GM kept at it until 2008, using small cars as CAFE chips and “something you can drive until you can afford an SUV, or a Honda.” Hopefully GM will be more agile in the future.

        Now that GM is becoming a an actual full-line automaker with competitive products across the board, then all they have to do is scramble to rebalance production the next time the world changes under their feet.

        BTW, the new Volt is making me actively want a GM product — which is an odd feeling. :-)

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      What she meant: I’m not going to cause a spiral into bankruptcy by sticking my head in the sand and pretending low oil prices will be around forever, like my predecessors did.

      I think she’s doing a great job. Under her there seems to be a nice balance between the car guys and the bean counters.

    • 0 avatar
      shipping96

      So cynical.

      It’s good to have a diverse product line. Cheap gas won’t stay forever. Plus there are CAFE standards to be met.

    • 0 avatar
      05lgt

      Fuel prices won’t, but sales numbers will. It’s a distinction without a distinction, but she is right.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    “Despite the ongoing drop in oil prices, General Motors CEO Mary Barra said her company would stay the course as far as fuel efficiency is concerned.”

    This isn’t a bad thing: GM got caught with all it’s eggs in one basket–full-size trucks–in 2008 and it’s good to see some diversification.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      +1 Psar. This is what I’ve been noticing lately, a pretty decent diversification of the product line without the heavy reliance on trucks…

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      Exactly this.

      GM has a solid mix of fuel efficient vehicles and high margin planet destroyers. The other more critical thing is they’re making money on the units they sell.

      I would rather GM sell 60K Epsilon II Impalas a year and make $2K profit on each one, then sell 300K W-Body Impalas a year and lose $1K on each one.

      Her point is they aren’t going to chase the direction of the price of gasoline because they don’t have to.

      Gasoline goes to $6 a gallon? Spark, Spark Electric, Volt, Sonic, Cruze Eco, Colorado/Canyon, Verano (for near luxury segment), eAssist LaCrosse (even Jack gave the 2015 a good review), and the fullsize truck line up is competitive (within the average fuel range when you check Fuelly of the competition by 1 to 1-1/2 MPG). We also know of other products.

      But there is one other thing – GM has to meet CAFE – just like everyone else. So the product mix will be dictated by meeting CAFE, meeting CAFE, and oh ya, meeting CAFE.

      One can go back to the Farago days of TTAC and read the B&B calls to kill the Tahoe/Suburban/Yukon/Escalade because of their appetite for fuel. The update to these vehicles couldn’t have come at a better time.

      One of the benefits of slowing fullsize truck sales and fullsize body on frame SUV sales being a sliver of what they were? GM isn’t as dependent on fullsize truck sales as say Ford is, in the total percentage of their mix. Their no Honda or Toyota in product mix – but it’s a Hell of a lot better than 2005.

      • 0 avatar
        jimbob457

        Agreed that GM, Ford, Toyota et.al. have lines of engines and platforms suitable for a variety of fuel prices. But, how you put them together and package them is important too. Shouldn’t GM’s planners be working on that already?

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        “One can go back to the Farago days of TTAC and read the B&B calls to kill the Tahoe/Suburban/Yukon/Escalade because of their appetite for fuel. The update to these vehicles couldn’t have come at a better time.”

        I don’t think we were clamouring for them to kill the Yukaburbasladahoe, rather that it would be nice if the car lineup wasn’t so lame, given the truck profits they could have spend on it.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        I’m probably the most militant GM BOF SUV hater (cynic, really) in the B&B and I don’t even want GM to kill them. I’d just like to see them improve, particularly on the high end of the pricing scale where they can’t compete.

        • 0 avatar
          APaGttH

          Look at it through the lens of a product manager.

          A) We own this category, no one comes close to us in sales, foreign or domestic, in tow capable, body on frame, cowboy Cadillac old school SUV

          B) We make a ton of profit on every one we sell

          C) We have an overall reputation for mechanical reliability in this class (you can nitpick this one but GM pushrod V8s engines and the trannys attched to them are respected for being light (power to pound of engine), relatively efficent, relatively easy to work on, and as reliable as a sunrise)

          So what incentive is there really to pump up the interior quality, beyond the big gains made in the last 10 years. I would say none – when you have a winning formula, you generally don’t mess with it. Case in point, drum brakes, torsion beam suspension, digital clock in the middle of the dash, steel rims can all be bought on a 2015 Corolla – why mess with success when despite the short comings in class, Toyota sells everyone they make.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Well, if the buyers are content with reliability and towing capacity alone, then I guess you don’t have any incentive to mess with it. But it’s a mystery to me that buyers see that as “good enough” to plunk down $70,000 or more. The GM BOF SUVs come up woefully short on interior space and packaging. As mentioned their interior quality is appropriate for a $40k truck, not a $70k one. Ride and handling are unrefined. That can all be overlooked for a towing/hauling/rugged use tool, but not for a luxury truck, and it’s a real surprise to me that so many people think these are worth luxury prices.

          • 0 avatar
            Hummer

            I don’t disagree that they are extremely overpriced, but they have zero competitors, the Individuals that want SUVs that can even somewhat resemble what was availible in the 70s-90s have two manufacturers to choose from the Jeep with the wrangler and decreasingly GM with its BoF offerings as GM rapidly tried to force the BOF offerings to compete with euro CUVs, a place they do not belong.

            Besides how do you define luxury truck, the expedition with its IRS is just as woefully inadequate for towing as the CUVs

  • avatar
    bryanska

    Results from just a few days ago: “In 2014, the company and its dealers delivered 9,924,880 vehicles around the world, surpassing by 2 percent the record set in 2013.”

    So… crap on them all we want. They’re certainly doing fine.

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      We’re second guessing their strategy, not crapping on them.

    • 0 avatar
      ect

      A rising tide lifts all boats. Looking at GM’s 2 major markets, sales rose 6% in the US and 13% in China in 2014. Global sales rose 6%.

      GM is not doing fine, they’re underperforming the market and losing market share. That’s not crapping on GM, that’s data.

      Whatever Ms. Barra actually said about GM’s strategy is not reported in this article. But simply staying the course, if that’s actually their intention, looks like a recipe for continued failure.

      • 0 avatar
        bryanska

        GM share is flat year-on-year, with only Nissan and Chrysler gaining significant share in the US. We’ll see more when the final year-end numbers come out, but here’s my position: with the worst recalls in history, underperforming Chevy sedans and an underperforming Cadillac divisions, as well as no minivans, GM still manages a solid year. I’m not seeing failure, either continued or recent. GM doesn’t “deserve” (using the business definition) more share given the product they’re fielding, so steady share is therefore a good performance.

        I don’t see any glaring need to change course. All the things needing fixing still need fixing. All the good things are still good things. Even better, GM’s big profitable trucks are about to get a boost. So even if share is steady, profits will be up.

        Oil will become expensive again eventually. Np doubt there is a huge pipeline of fuel-saving innovations queued up in R&D, so why waste it?

  • avatar
    kovakp

    I’m too much of a pig to get past digging her looks, like Shirley Maclane’s daughter. I’d definitely attend a recital with her.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Mary B, was questioned, about GM’s future in Oshawa, a few weeks ago. Apparently, fluctuations in US vs Canadian currency, will have zero impact on product allocation?? Now she mentions falling oil prices, will also have no effect on future plans.

    Todays exchange 1.00 US dollar, buys you 1.20 Can. Oil is trading for $47.?? a barrel. So every other business on the planet, is somehow being impacted by the volatile oil business, and wild currency fluctuations.

    GM is a multi billion dollar company, that builds a product worldwide. A product that requires oil to function.

    I guess that understanding why, oil prices and exchange rates, should have any impact on GM decision making, is beyond my limited education.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      No, it’s just that she’s doing something that GM traditionally is very bad at: planning more than a quarter to a fiscal year in advance.

      The old GM (the same one that lost billions with Fiat and got caught flat-footed with a fleet full of trucks when gas spiked) would have probably restarted Oshawa Truck, only to eat closing costs a year later.

      The exchange rate is not a given, nor is the price of fuel, and what might make sense now might not work so well, or could even be a serious liability, a year or more in the future. A Katrina, 9/11 or Lehmann could change the game quite quickly.

      There’s no real advantage to Canadian operations when GM has an global overcapacity problem and very little Canadian supplier footprint compared to the US. And while the Volt might not make hay now, at least they aren’t letting their small and/or efficient offerings languish, as they did with the J-Bodies and P90s.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        No I think that’s typical CEO speak, hold your cards closely to your chest, lest you reveal something accidentally. I’ve seen all kinds of CEO press conferences, anymore none of them ever give more than a vague idea of future plans, expectations or competitive conditions.

        Agreed about not letting the small and fuel efficient offerings languish as they did in the 1990’s.

  • avatar
    Dirk Stigler

    Also, water is wet and the sky is blue. Yes of course it’s impossible to base product planning on oil prices, because oil prices fluctuate on a time scale of months, while development lead time for new vehicles is 2-4 years. We know this.

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      GM didn’t know this in 2008!

      Ah, I love having 20/20 hindsight. :-)

      But, yeah, they should have known that sicne CEOs are paid to sit around and nhink amout this sort of thing, and since oil is the economic bedrock of the car business (until EVs become mainstream).

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    A little history as to why a corporation like GM shouldn’t knee-jerk respond to something as volatile as gas prices

    The 1986 E-Body

    “Very small and stylistically undistinguished, the Buick Riviera, Olds Toronado, and Cadillac Eldorado and Seville were designed with the premise in mind that gas would be three dollars a gallon when they made their debut. The resulting design theme called for the smallest possible exterior dimensions. They arrived into a world of $1.19 per gallon gasoline, and American car buyers who liked some size and distinction in their luxury products. They did not sell.”

    http://psautomobilist.blogspot.com/2012/03/downsized-gm-in-eighties.html

    Maybe GM did learn something

  • avatar
    sirwired

    I would certainly hope the drop in prices would not change development plans, which last many years. Getting caught flat on your a$$ (again!) because your product mix is wholly dependent on low oil prices is foolhardy.

    (About as foolhardy as buying the most gas-guzzling vehicle you can find just because gas is cheap this month, or even this year.) Woe to the poor people who had to practically give away their gigantic BOF SUV’s at trade-in when they couldn’t afford to fill the tank.

  • avatar
    Dan

    The popular spin of GM running out of money in 2008 because of a short sighted reliance on trucks overlooks that those truck profits are the only reason GM didn’t run out of money 10 years before that.

    GM showed a profit of close to 20 billion dollars from 2000-2005. 9 or 10 million GMT800s are why.

    No car portfolio in the world would have kept a company with GM’s legacy costs viable through the crash years. I don’t believe any conceivable car portfolio would have kept them viable long term even without the crash.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      If I recall correctly, most of the profits came from its financial subsidiary. Its North American Automotive operations lost money during that time.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Automotive operations produced a $12.9 billion loss in 2005, a slight loss in 2004, and little more than breakeven in 2003.

        The finance s1de wasn’t enough to save GM at the time, but it certainly did help to carry it.

        http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/40730/000095012406001534/k03376e10vk.htm#115

        Dan gets this stuff wrong just about every time. As we discussed here at the time before the BK, GM’s greatest problem was a lack of pricing power, which was the result of its weak brands, which were the result of its weak products. You can’t make money by selling it for less than what it costs to make.

        After Roger Smith left, Jack Smith abandoned his predecessor’s efforts to emulate the Japanese, and changed direction by pushing the company toward reliance on gas guzzlers. He also chose Rick Wagoner as his successor. Failure was in the works for decades, but you can blame a lot of GM’s ultimate demise on Jack Smith — putting GM’s eggs into one truck basket was helpful over the short run, but disastrous over the long run.

        • 0 avatar
          ect

          GM had no more or less pricing power than the other D3 companies.

          GM’s problem was cash flow, caused by huge legacy costs and a shrinking business. They went from having 46.5% of the US market in 1976 to 23.9% in 2006, and 21.9% in 2008. This decline might have been worse, except that the company seems to have maintained a strong base of loyal customers.

          As sales and profits declined,they couldn’t/didn’t shrink the organization at the same rate, and legacy costs (e.g. retiree benefits) grew. Product development got fewer resources, which only compounded the problem.

          Yet the company’s “we’re rich, we can throw money at everything” culture endured. Witness the money spent on follies like Fiat and Saab, and the lavish salary/benefits structure.

          Somewhere in the 2005-2006 period, they passed the point of no return. Net income went negative in 2005, shareholders’ equity went into deficit in 2006, and the business was hemorrhaging cash.

          The sale of 1/2 of GMAC to Cerberus was brilliantly timed for GM – GM was paid $7.4 billion by Cerberus, and GMAC went from earning $3 billion a year to losing $2 billion a year, thanks to ResCap. But it was not nearly enough to save GM – the hole had gotten far too deep, and was only going to get deeper.

          “No car portfolio in the world would have kept a company with GM’s legacy costs viable through the crash years. I don’t believe any conceivable car portfolio would have kept them viable long term even without the crash.” It may be a bit hyperbolic, but I’d say that, looking at GM’s situation at the beginning of 2008, Dan got that about right.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      GM had to give back much of that 20 billion to cover the overly-optimistic residuals on the glut of trucks and SUVs that came off-lease when gas was $4 a gallon.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    What choice does she have? CAFE dictates what cars must be sold in the
    US by volume manufacturers. Perhaps if GM can make cars that meet the arbitrary targets without stinking then they’ll get through this disruption of consumer interests without losing half of their market share like they did last time.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Perhaps one explanation for Ms. Barra’s comment is that GM’s product mix is more dictated by regulation than by the current price of oil. As anyone with any tenure knows, forecasting the price of fuel within the range of a car development cycle (2-4 years) is a complete fool’s errand.

    Regulatory imperatives continue unabated. One of the fallacies in the statement that pickup trucks are “hugely profitable” is that, while true on a marginal cost basis, because the regulatory regime requires automakers to produce lots of high-mileage vehicles for which there is little demand, most of the time margins on those vehicles are razor-thin; and it is the “huge profits” on pickup trucks and the like that, in effect, subsidize the minimal profits on high-mileage vehicles. If car makers were flatly prohibited from selling things like pickups, SUVs and the like, I think you’d find the prices of the remaining vehicles on sale to be substantially higher.

    So, if GM pushed out even more Silverados and Suburbans in response to cheap gasoline, the company would have to lower the price of Volts, etc. even further to avoid exceeding CAFE ceilings. As it is, apparently there’s a ton of money on the hood for buyers of things like Ford’s C-Max.

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      GM wasn’t selling modestly sized cars on the coasts. They ignored the segment.

      Honda and Toyota were doing that, which confused the “buy American” crowd who had never bothered to drive and own these cars and understand why they were so much better for those evironments.

      GM could have competed well with Toyota and Honda in thin market, but they did not. They’ve really upped their game in this enormous segment now, and they’re benefiting the shift to CUVs — or at least that’s how it looks to me at the moment.

  • avatar
    Steinweg

    “Ongoing drop in oil prices”?

    Talk to me in 18 months. The product planning cycle for vehicles takes us well beyond the recovery time frame for oil prices. Long term oil will not be cheaper. The current drop will clear out a glut, eliminate a lot of planned development and make future development harder to finance. Result: prices will not only recover, they will make Suburban drivers weep.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Nothing wrong with her answers, but the questions were lame.

    Does anyone expect bombshell answers?

    A: We really didn’t learn anything from the ignition thing, or whatever. We knew there were problems from day one, but hoped it would just go away.

    A: We’re immediately stopping development on EVs, hybrids, and 4-cylinders. All people want are big trucks now, anyway.

    If you want meaningful answers, ask better questions.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      This.

      And this is one of the reasons why I love TTAC. The staff here has historically asked good questions, tough questions, the kind of questions that gets you kicked out of press conferences.

      I wish more would have some balls and ask real questions of our politicians, business leaders, regulators, etc. etc. etc.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    Bring back the glass ceiling.

  • avatar
    kincaid

    I think Mary is doing a fine job. It takes four to five years to get a new model to production. It is more important to focus on what customers want than to predict future fuel prices. My guess is that many customers are totally happy with smaller more refined cars that GM now makes and they see no need to go back to a bigger land yacht. Customers have learned to insulate themselves from the downside of high fuel prices and are surprisingly happy. Only unhappy ones are the truck buyers who will always need to use a lot more fuel to defend their lifestyle. All the Volt buyers I know can’t wait to get another, better Volt.

  • avatar

    she has dome nothing to fix the marketing or market share. the back door incentives announced this month are as confusing as ever. this is one whacked out company when it comes to “selling” cars.

  • avatar
    Hummer

    They need to diversify their lineup, it’s basically completely aimed at high efficiency small vehicles. They really don’t offer very many large vehicles with large engines, the 3/4+ and maybe the Suburban, XL, and ESV are about it, why must I be required to buy a 3/4 truck to find a vehicle that doesn’t scrape the ground, use a tiny engine, tiny tires, and have a decent presence.
    Making a vehicle blobby just takes way it’s presence, the 1/2s just can’t compete with the exposed running gear and heavier duty running gear forcing the 3/4 trucks up, which makes the blobbiness of 3/4 much less noticeable.

    There, this thread needed some diversity, it was like watching when CNN invites guests based on the fact the host knows they’ll agree on every point.

  • avatar
    RHD

    I’m not The Professor, but I’ll take a stab at translating Woman Auto Executive Speak into English.

    Despite the ongoing drop in oil prices, General Motors CEO Mary Barra said her company would stay the course as far as fuel efficiency is concerned.
    “We were completely unprepared for the unexpected 50% drop on gas prices, so at this point, GM will do nothing.”

    While she said falling prices weren’t going to alter product plans, she didn’t know what the end result of the situation would end up being.
    “We aren’t going to do, like, anything, and I have NO IDEA what will happen next!”

    …GM has learned its lessons from the recalls, and vowing that “this sort of thing” will never occur in the future. She maintains, however, that she, senior management and top engineers had no clue about the ignition problems that kicked off the parade until it came to light via pre-trial testimony.
    “This sort of thing [crosses fingers behind her back] will NEVER occur in the future, because, like, I can’t predict oil futures prices or GM product planning strategies, but I SO know what all the GM engineers, quality-control guys, accountants and assembly-line monkeys will do, totally!”

    As far as GM being a large corporation weighed down by bureaucracy is concerned, Barra said such a view is inaccurate today, from how it conducts conferences, to how it evaluates employees and listens to its customer base.
    “Um, ah, I read my cue card, just like I practiced!”

    Finally, she said she keeps an eye on the various subsidiaries GM has around the world, praising the strength of Opel in particular.
    “This job is totally bitchin’, you give me so much ATTENTION and the guys in the suits can do whatever they want while you keep looking at ME… I like diamonds, and pearls, and I didn’t even know we made Opals!”

  • avatar
    don1967

    And so GM remains stuck in reactive mode.

    In 2010 they released the Volt, as a reaction to the 2007 peak oil hysteria. Now that the last traces of that bubble are finally disappearing, GM is waiting for consumers to tell them that MPG is no longer an obsession. By the time that happens they will once again be 3 to 5 years behind the curve.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      GM began development of the Volt once the Prius hit 100,000 units of annual US sales. Toyota proved that there was a market for hybrids and was working on a plug-in — GM wanted its piece of the action.

      • 0 avatar
        don1967

        A fair comment. Still, it was a reactive decision that meant being late to market… a market which ran (and still runs) the risk of evaporating on short notice.

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          In most cases, first-mover advantage is a myth. Pioneers get shot with arrows.

          (That doesn’t seem to be true in the case of hybrids, though. Toyota owns the brand at this point.)

          There isn’t much innovation in automaking. At this point, GM would be wise to have a competitive portfolio that can be adjusted to meet demand.

          It’s smart to have a Volt in their back pocket, even if it never proves to be a hit. At the very least, it’s an insurance policy. Automakers have no business being in the oil speculation business — they should be prepared for high and low oil prices, not bet the farm on oil being cheap.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            That’s a two-way street. In the ’80s they bet the farm on gas being expensive by downsizing all their large cars. Gas remained low, GM got burned. Bes1de the fact they were boring mediocre cars

          • 0 avatar
            don1967

            ” Automakers have no business being in the oil speculation business — they should be prepared for high and low oil prices, not bet the farm on oil being cheap.”

            … or expensive. (To complete the logical argument)

  • avatar
    hybridkiller

    Hasn’t the reality of steadily rising CAFE standards already made this decision for them? No seriously, I’m asking…

    • 0 avatar
      Hummer

      Yea it seems like she’s just talking to reassure people she’s still alive.
      imo, such a comment is ridiculous, no different than saying “Fuel prices are going up, but they’ll probably go back down so we’re going to continue only using Big block engines in our vehicles”; to actually come out and say your going to purposely ignore the direction of the market is Old GM at its finest.

  • avatar
    mikehgl

    GM’s product portfolio is partially (mostly?) dictated by cafe standards. It’s not oil prices that changes the course of the GM monolith, it’s government regulation. That makes this entire thread somewhat pointless, but still interesting.
    Yeah, she’s a looker too.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      mikehgl, the thread isn’t pointless. I believe Ms Barra to be the best thing that ever happened to GM, pre and post bailout and nationalization, but that does not make me want to buy another GM product ever.

      She is doing for GM what no others before her have done — recognizing, acknowledging, recalling and fixing the crap that is GM. She should be commended for that.

      In addition to making the GM buyers whole again by fixing what is wrong with the GM products, I fully expect Ms Barra to put out a survey that will pose the question to the market place and potential buyers,

      “I would buy a GM product if only GM would……” with the potential buyer completing that sentence.

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