He spends all day thinking about cars (and trucks) that you will love. Don’t you love that?
The shoes Mark Reuss fills may be a size 8 Jimmy Choo pump. That’s because Mark, Executive Vice President, Global Product Development at General Motors, holds the job Mary Barra held before she became GM’s chief executive. He oversees the development and production of virtually everything GM builds, from cars and trucks to the factories, parts and systems that it takes to build them.
But if Mark did squeeze his toes into those pumps, they would most likely be black on black. When he sat down–in a new Chevy Silverado–to chat with me on Periscope, I had to ask: what’s your favorite color? After a bit of a self-conscious laugh–I don’t think he gets that question very often– Mark told me that he likes black, for both the exterior and interior of his cars.
Color matters, even if that color is black
Mark is quick to admit that a black car isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, he credits his boss with creating diversity among the global automaker’s 220,000 employees, which is what makes it possible for the company to appeal to car buyers around the globe. “I think colors coming out of our studios now are different, creative, that the color teams are coming up with colors and combinations that our customers love.”
Diversity isn’t just color; it’s ideas, culture and people
General Motors has been making a concentrated effort over the last eight years to bring more diversity to the company. The company is geographically and culturally diverse; now it also reflects the diversity of its customers. Mark and his teams rely on this diversity– of ideas, opinions and view points –to help the company create cars and trucks that appeal to all types of customers. “We don’t want white males sitting in a conference room in Michigan making all the decisions,” he said. “That would be a huge mistake.”
And it’s clear that customers love what GM’s four brands–Chevrolet, GMC, Cadillac and Buick– are creating. In fact, the company has been profitable for more than five years, remarkable considering the crash of the economy, the company’s entree into bankruptcy and the record number of recalls the past few years.
So what’s with all those recalls, anyway?
“We want to get problems before they hit or as soon as we find it,” Mark said. The company sees recalls as a strategy to build a reputation for building reliable, long lasting cars and trucks. “We are driving toward defect free; we are really, really focused on this.”
In fact, the safety and quality of General Motors vehicles is so important to him that he doesn’t just have a single favorite car he drives, but he drives the company’s new cars as they are being produced, testing out pre-production vehicles before they are produced for customers.
But now the big question: who was the greater influence, Mom or Dad?
That’s a tough one, says Mark, who grew up as the son of a senior executive at General Motors. “Both parents came from small coal mine towns in southern Illinois; my mom’s dad was a milkman and a coal miner, my other grandfather [dad’s father] owned a very small gas station; it had a garage in it and he serviced all the farm equipment in the community.” From that background Mark’s parents instilled their midwestern values and work ethic.
But then he tips the scale: “My mom taught me how to keep it all in perspective,” Mark says. It is a skill that helped him to keep things in check when, as an engineer at GM in 1992 and the company reporting huge losses, his father was fired. And again in 2009 when the company filed for bankruptcy and was forced to make huge changes. And again when GM’s board selected Mary Barra from the pool of senior executives, which included Mark, to be the next–and the first female–CEO. Bringing that focus to what needs to be accomplished and applying the ethics and measures of excellence is what has kept Mark at the top of the game.
Preparing for the inevitable: How do you prepare for a downturn in the economy?
With five years of profitability and a textbook comeback from bankruptcy, it’s hard to imagine a downturn. But it’s also inevitable. So I asked, how do you prepare? “One thing we learned from lack of credit and the financial crisis,” Mark said, referring to GM’s cash crunch when the economy crashed, is where our break even point needed to be. “Our break even point has decreased; it’s lower than it was during the crisis,” meaning that the company gets to profitability quicker now than ever on each car and truck they build. This is because they’ve started to think carefully about manufacturing plants, making them more flexible and agile so they aren’t plagued with plant closings, or burdened with too many expensive new plant openings. You have to “fortress your balance sheet, fortress the mentality around preparing for these cycles,” Mark says.
Speaking of expensive shiny new things…
Rumors have been around for a while that Chevrolet would revive the El Camino, the sedan/pickup truck hybrid that was popular until the 1970’s, especially in Southern and Western states. It’s been a pop culture darling lately, having a starring role in Beyoncé’s new video “Formation” and an appearance as the daily driver of the lead female character in the Showtime drama “The Affair.” Though GM was discussing bringing it back before the recession, currently the company has no plans to revive the vehicle.