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GM’s Mary Barra defends slow start to electric-vehicle push

September 27, 2021, 10:46 AM UTC

Good morning.

GM CEO Mary Barra set the tenor for 2021 back in January, when she announced her intention to eliminate all emissions from new GM cars by 2035. “I think we will look back and see ’21-’22 as an inflection point that allowed us to start driving mass adoption of electric vehicles,” she told Fortune’s CEO Initiative at an event the day she made that announcement.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Barra again recently, in a taped interview for Workday’s Conversations for a Changing World event, which starts tomorrow. (I also interviewed Amal Clooney, Peyton Manning and Larry Fitzgerald for the Workday event—not my usual fare.) In speaking with Barra, I noted EVs currently account for only about 3% of the company’s sales. Was there a danger, I asked, that she was getting ahead of her customers? Her response:

“You know, that can always be a possibility. But we would rather be ahead than be behind. And actually, when we talk to customers, and we understand and do research, every time we do the research there’s more of a willingness to consider an electric vehicle and that’s what gives us a lot of confidence.”

The bold 2035 goal is an example of Barra’s leadership style. She likes to challenge her team with broad, hyper-ambitious goals: “Zero crashes, zero emissions, zero congestion”; “We want to become the most inclusive company in the world.” It’s an approach she says paid off well during the pandemic.

“What I’ve learned is when you put something like that out there, quickly everybody gets aligned, and then they just amaze you with what they’re able to do to achieve those objectives. So the message was as important internally as it was externally…

“The pandemic caused us to stop operations, to take everything home. (We learned) we could be as efficient and as productive and actually in some cases advance our electric vehicle programs. I would have said that’s going to be pretty tough. But, when our team had that clear goal of what needed to happen, they were very creative… One of the things I say is to let people know what they’ve got to get done, and then get out of their way, because they’ll get it done.”

The stock market seems to have less confidence that GM will succeed, valuing the company today at roughly one-tenth the value it places on EV pioneer Tesla. I asked Barra if that discrepancy bothered her. Her response:

“When I hear that, I just say, you know what, we’re going to just keep demonstrating what we’re doing. And we’ve got to tell our story better.”

To explore how much business is really responding to the climate challenge, Fortune tomorrow will convene its virtual Fortune Global Sustainability Forum featuring, among others, the CEOs of Dow, IKEA, Hershey, BCG, Dominion Energy and 3M, as well as U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. Details here. I’ll report back on the event Wednesday.

Other news below.

Alan Murray


German election

The center-left SPD emerged from yesterday's federal election as Germany's largest party, but only just. Now begins a probably lengthy period of coalition negotiations, with the balance of power lying in the hands of the Greens and the pro-business FDP, who will get to choose whether they want to prop up the SPD's Olaf Scholz or the CDU's Armin Laschet. But first, they need to establish whether they can find a compromise between their own left- and right-wing stances. Fortune

Life expectancy

In most developed nations, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the biggest drop in life expectancy since World War II. Men have fared worse than women, and American men in particular, with their average life expectancy falling by 2.2 years relative to 2019 levels. Financial Times

U.K. fuel

Despite not actually being short of gas, the U.K. is short of truck drivers to get the stuff from refineries to gas stations. The situation became a full-on crisis over the weekend, with panic-buying causing two-thirds of outlets to run dry, and the government exempting the sector from competition rules so oil firms can coordinate among themselves and get supplies to where they are needed. BBC

China and crypto

China on Friday banned cryptocurrency exchanges from serving its people, while also specifying that the "stablecoin" Tether is not fiat currency. The move knocked crypto markets, but they didn't take long to recover. Fortune


Android appeal

Google's appeal against a $5 billion antitrust fine, levied against it by the European Commission in 2018, began today in the General Court in Luxembourg. The fine was for illegally abusing Google's position in the Android market to push its own services on users. Wall Street Journal


The U.S. is preparing to counter China's "Belt and Road" initiative by finding infrastructure projects in Latin America that it can finance before Beijing gets there. Diplomatic and development officials are starting in Colombia, before heading to Ecuador and Panama. Reuters

Hostage diplomacy

After Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou struck a deal with the U.S. Justice Department and flew back from Canada to China, Beijing released Michaels Spavor and Kovrig, who were detained for over 1,000 days in what was plainly a case of hostage diplomacy. Global News

Chinese power

China is the latest country to face a power crunch, which unfortunately comes at the same time as the Evergrande crisis. Regions across the country are now under pressure to use less power, with the shortage being attributable to decarbonization efforts, high gas prices, and other factors. Bloomberg

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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