Can GM’s Lieblein Help Keep “People In Motion” While Cutting Costs?

General Motors

Grace Lieblein is stepping up to the U.S. General Motors (NYSE:GM) plate with a lot at stake, and she’s hoping to hit a home run.

Lieblein, 52, has a new position at the automaker, following her top roles at the company in Brazil and Mexico where she effectively headed operations and dealt directly with product engineering development. Now, she is turning her attention to the U.S., where her new position as head of GM purchasing will require her to help the automaker save money while also introducing 18 new or refreshed vehicles in 12 months.

Lieblein comes to the role during a promising time for GM in the U.S. The auto company has reported 13 straight profitable quarters, posted shares at the highest level in more than two years, and has recently announced its plan to rejoin the Standard & Poor 500 Index. Now, she will focus on helping GM conquer the task of continuing to increase profit within the next few years, while also managing to cut fixed costs by $1 billion.

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Fortunately, she’s been well trained for the job — a training that began as a child when her father, a Cuban immigrant, began working at a GM plant. She has since been with GM for more than 30 years, with a career that started as a student at Kettering University, once known as General Motors Institute. One of her first jobs as an engineer helped her understand what customers are interested in when looking for vehicles. She took this knowledge with her to Mexico when she took over operations in January 2009. Though she wasn’t in the U.S. for the bankruptcy reorganization effort, the experience helped push her to focus on what drives profit.

Lieblein spent two-and-a-half years in Mexico before heading to Brazil at a pivotal time when the unit was beginning production of nine new models in 20 months. While there, she developed her knowledge of auto parts makers, while also working to consolidate efforts and integrate GM’s purchasing and logistics team with product development. Her work with the integration effort, an unusual feat, coupled with her experiences in Mexico and Brazil will prove crucial for Lieblein’s position in the U.S. as Warren Browne, a former GM executive in Brazil, explains, “Heading GM’s Brazil operations is one of the few positions within the company where an executive oversees manufacturing facilities in a large market while also dealing with product engineering and development, gaining insight into both ends of supplier involvement.”

Bloomberg also quotes Guildo Vildozo, an industry analyst with IHS Automotive, explaining further, “Her exposure to all of these different challenges down in Sao Paulo and in Brazil are key to helping her build her relationships with suppliers moving forward.”

Dan Akerson

And with what’s on her plate, Lieblein is going to need that crucial experience as she takes on the daunting task of helping GM introduce new vehicles while also cutting material and logistics costs. Chuck Stevens, chief financial office for North America, contends that the Detroit-based auto company “wants to save $1 billion by optimizing material costs and better logistics” which aligns with GM’s chief executive officer Dan Akerson’s goal of eventually making GM the world’s most profitable automaker. He wants the company’s North American unit to reach profit margins of 10 percent by mid-decade.

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For now, Lieblein is focusing on GM’s immediate goals, and that entails bringing the redesigned Chevrolet Silverado pickup to dealers this quarter. The automaker will also introduce a redesigned Cadillac CTS sedan, among others.

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