Mary Barra’s White House meeting with President Trump on Thursday may or may not have settled any of the issues between the two leaders, but it did underscore Barra’s growing status as the dean of American automotive executives.
The General Motors CEO emerged calling the meeting “productive and valuable,” while Trump provided no tweets or other information about the session that presumably covered thorny issues including the trade war, a slowdown in U.S. manufacturing, and the president’s somewhat-misinformed comments about GM, including its size and its approach toward manufacturing in China.
Another topic of discussion likely was Trump’s rumored move to accelerate the rollout of relaxed federal tailpipe-emissions standards, and California’s strict rules that have divided major automakers strategically on fuel economy for the first time.
In any event, make no mistake: Barra’s one-on-one with the president solidified the fact that she has become the undisputed leader of the American auto industry.
For one thing, Barra apparently has Trump’s ear even though the president has dramatically – and publicly – needled her about decisions such as GM’s move to shut down a handful of U.S. manufacturing plants. Trump didn’t meet individually with Ford Motor CEO Jim Hackett nor Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley. And other American auto chiefs including Toyota North America CEO Jim Lentz ultimately represent foreign carmakers, not any of the hallowed Detroit Three.
Second, nearly six years into her job, Barra’s strategic choices have re-established GM as an industry leader. They include the decision that Trump criticized to downsize manufacturing in advance of any industry slowdown, as well as her moves to deep-six most sedans, exit Europe for the most part, and invest robustly in the future of autonomous vehicles. Also, Barra effectively has put behind her some initial obstacles such as GM’s massive ignition-defect recall.
Meanwhile, though taking some effective steps as well, Hackett, now two years into the job, and Manley, only one year into the job, are still finding their footing.
Third, Barra, the first female leader of a major automaker, has moved mightily to advance women within a traditionally male-dominated industry – and at perhaps the most traditionally male-dominated automaker. Now eight of the 11 members of the GM board that she helped reshape are female.
Barra also toppled barricades by naming the company’s first female chief financial officer, Dhivya Suryadevara, last year to a position that has been a historical advancement point for people who’ve gone on to become GM CEOs. And earlier this week, Barra named Deborah Wahl, a McDonald’s veteran, as the first woman global chief marketing officer in the company’s history, elevating Wahl from helming the Cadillac brand only. GM hasn’t had someone formally in the overall CMO position since 2012.
The GM chief faces more transformative opportunities in the immediate future. For instance, the United Auto Workers has chosen GM as its lead company for the national labor-contract negotiations that opened in July and that are supposed to come up with new agreements this month. With her company as the union’s initial “target,” Barra has a chance to shape to GM’s liking a new pact that would become a model for the UAW when it moves on to competitors Ford and Fiat Chrysler.
And by standing with the president so far while some other automakers, including Ford, try to find a middle ground with California regulators on stiffer emissions standards than the president wants, Barra could prove a key ally of Trump — even though he’ll likely keep bashing her decisions occasionally on Twitter.
As the history of his presidency indicates clearly, for a CEO to be able to meet with the president and communicate with him directly can mean having a lot of influence not only on what he says but on what the federal government does under Trump’s leadership. And that’s where Barra stands today.