GM boss survives killer parts questions

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br GMboss Bloomberg General Motors chief executive Mary Barra testifies before the House energy and commerce committee in Washington on Tuesday about the car maker's defective ignition switches. Photo: Bloomberg

Washington - General Motors (GM) chief executive Mary Barra did not squirm in the hot seat on Tuesday. On the job less than three months, she calmly answered or deflected tough questions from a congressional committee about faulty parts responsible for at least 13 deaths and the recall of 2.6 million cars.

Barra frustrated legislators by fending off questions, saying she was awaiting results of an internal GM investigation. She did not know why GM waited more than a decade to recall cars it knew had defective ignition switches. She did not know who was responsible for the decisions that delayed the recall.

Experts on corporate damage control said she had little choice and gave her high marks for her performance.

“Barra’s rope-a-dope is the best of GM’s bad options today,” crisis management consultant Eric Dezenhall said. “There isn’t a corporate lawyer in the country that’s going to allow her to engage in freelance speculation about things she doesn’t know. No, that’s not satisfying to the public and media, but the alternative is much worse.”

Investors shrugged. GM stock, down more than 7 percent since March 11, barely budged on Tuesday, slipping 8c to $34.34 (R363).

Barra apologised for GM’s slowness in warning customers about the problems and promised to change the car maker’s culture to emphasise safety.

“Barra held her ground, claiming that today’s GM is a different company from the one whose corporate culture allowed this to fester for a decade,” said Jack Nerad, the executive editorial director of Kelley Blue Book, which lists the prices and values of new and used cars.

Ken and Jayne Rimer, whose daughter died in a 2006 accident after a faulty switch prevented airbags from deploying, found her testimony incomplete. For Barra “not to have any answers” after about three months as chief executive was unsatisfactory, Ken Rimer said outside the hearing room. “It surprised me how unprofessional that was.”

But some legislators appeared more sympathetic to Barra, who was thrust into a crisis after becoming the first woman boss of a major car maker in January. During her 33 years at GM, she worked in engineering, communications and human resources.

Not everything went smoothly for Barra, who struggled to explain how GM could continue to use parts that did not meet its own specifications. When she tried to draw a distinction between parts that did not meet specs and those that were defective and dangerous, Republican Representative Joe Barton said: “What you just answered is gobbledygook.”

Some corporate image experts praised Barra for seizing the initiative by announcing that GM had hired Kenneth Feinberg, who handled funds for the victims of the September 11 terror attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill – to explore ways to compensate accident victims. Barra did not commit GM to setting up such a fund. – Sapa-AP

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