As Mary Barra, chief executive officer of General Motors Co., prepares to take the hot seat before a congressional panel again next week, she’d better brace herself for relentless volleys of stern questioning and stinging commentary — deservedly so.
That scenario will likely play out as members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight subcommittee have now had ample time to digest the scathing 315-page report released last week on the automaker’s gross negligence in mishandling and delaying for a decade corrective action on defective ignition switches installed in 2.6 million cars, including Chevrolet Cobalt models manufactured in the Mahoning Valley.
Also testifying will be former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas who compiled and issued the brutal report that blamed the delay on a dysfunctional corporate culture, misconduct and poor decisions by high-ranking employees. The faulty switches have been linked to more than 50 crashes and at least 13 deaths.
Fortunately for the global automaker and the millions of Americans who have invested trust in the company, Barra thus far has been no apologist for GM.
In a speech last week, for example, she vowed to make this colossal damage to the company’s reputation a turning point for the company.
“We aren’t simply going to fix this and move on,” she told 1,200 employees at the automaker’s Vehicle Engineering Center in Warren, Mich. “I want to keep this painful experience permanently in our collective memories. I don’t want to forget what happened because I — and I know you — never want this to happen again.”
She and other corporate leaders of the company must continue to follow that same route of candor, blame-taking, transparency and accountability if the automaker seeks to maintain its high ranking in American and global vehicle sales.
Thus far, that demeanor looks to be a winning strategy. The short-term fallout from the damaging revelations have had surprisingly minimal impact on the automaker. GM stock has suffered only minor losses this year, and sales of the quintessentially American nameplate have actually increased. In May, overall GM sales increased 12.6 percent, and Chevrolet sales rose 14 percent. Sales of the Lordstown-produced Chevy Cruze witnessed a blowout jump of 41 percent over May 2013.
DON’T BLAME FRONT-LINE WORKERS
We suspect, as we pointed out last month, that many Americans are well aware that the major problems at the automaker lie in the laps of its Detroit hierarchy, not in the skillful hands of its assembly-line and lower-level employees, including the 4,500 at Lordstown who produce the company’s best-selling small car.
Nonetheless, the longer the attention of the nation and the world is focused squarely on GM’s shortcomings, embarrassments and dysfunctional corporate culture, the more likely that adverse impact will collide with all segments of the automaker’s production and sales.
That’s why it’s critically important that Barra and other GM leaders stay the course of cooperation with investigators, compensation for those impacted by poor decision-making and determination to ensure such gross neglect never gains traction again.
Regaining public trust and confidence will not be easy nor will it be quick. Congressional and potential criminal investigations are only in their preliminary stages. More lawsuits are likely from victims and their families..
But Barra’s actions to publicly admit the problems, fire 15 high-ranking employees involved in the cover-up and work to change a GM culture of indifference to safety represent a solid starting point toward repairing and rebuilding the mangled reputation of America’s most iconic automaker.