When I started my PR firm in 1999, I received an unexpected call from the CFO of one of my founding clients. His name was Terry, and he personally reached out to instruct me to bill him for two months service upfront.
“I imagine you’re going to need some extra cash to help cover your startup costs,” I recall Terry as saying. “I want you to have the extra financial cushion to get you going.”
Although more than two decades have passed since Terry’s call, my appreciation for his generosity and concern remains as strong today as it did when it was first extended. I’ve spoken with Terry periodically over the years, and our conversation always begin with me again acknowledging his corporate kindness when I really needed it.
GM CEO Mary Barra apparently has no such sentimentality. In 2009, U.S. taxpayers spent $50 billion to rescue the once mighty automaker from bankruptcy. The U.S. government recaptured much of that money when it sold the GM stock it acquired as part of the bailout, but at the end of the day U.S. taxpayers lost lost $11.2 billion on the deal because of the Obama Administration’s corporate generosity.
Since being named CEO in 2014, Barra has yet to demonstrate any appreciation or loyalty to America for bailing out GM for failings that were the company’s own doings. Far from it: Under Barra’s watch, GM has significantly expanded its footprint in Mexico, where it is that country’s biggest producer of vehicles.
GM’s electric Chevy Equinox will be built in Mexico, as will the company’s Blazer. GM’s gas guzzling, climate destroying Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra luxury pickup trucks, the bread and butter of the company’s profits, were ranked at the virtual bottom in an “American made” survey that considered not only where trucks were assembled but also parts content, engine and transmission origins, and U.S. manufacturing workforce.
Good Jobs First, which tracks corporate feeding at the public trough, ranks GM second among America’s taxpayer corporate moochers, having received more than $8 billion in federal and state grants and allocated tax credits since 2020. GJF’s estimates possibly don’t include $3.8 billion in Michigan tax credits GM received to keep jobs in the state because that taxpayer largesse was only recently disclosed by order of a judge. GM wanted the taxpayer money kept under wraps.
Given what American taxpayers have done for GM, Americans should be appalled by the disclosure Wednesday that its GM Financial subsidiary agreed to settle for $3.5 million Justice Department allegations that it illegally repossessed 71 service members’ vehicles and improperly denied or mishandled over 1,000 vehicle lease termination requests.
“Members of our Armed Forces should not have to suffer financial hardship as a result of their service to our nation,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a news release. “The Civil Rights Division remains steadfast in its commitment to enforcing laws that safeguard the rights of our service members so that they can devote their energy and attention to the defense of our country.”
Added U.S. Attorney Chad E. Meacham for the Northern District of Texas: “The last thing service members should be worried about while deployed is paying off vehicle leases they don’t want and can’t use. As members of our armed forces put their lives on the line for our country, we are determined to protect their rights here at home.”
It’s admirable the DOJ pursued GM Financial, but the company got off with a wrist slap given what Barra gets paid. Barra in 2021 was awarded $29 million in compensation, well above the average $18.5 million paid to America’s other highly paid CEOs. Barra’s ratio of total compensation to the median of all GM employees’ total compensation was 420-1. By comparison, the average S&P company’s CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 324-1.
GM’s $102.6 million Class Action Defeat
How fitting that a day before the Jewish Day of Atonement, a California jury found that GM hid an engine defect that resulted in excessive oil consumption, leading to engine damage, stalling, and premature breakdown in tens of thousands of GM’s 5.3-liter SUVs and light trucks.
From the news release issued by the lawyers representing the aggrieved GM owners:
Filed in late 2016, the lawsuit claimed that internal GM documents showed that the company was quickly alerted to a defect in the engine’s piston rings that resulted in the vehicles consuming too much oil. The excess oil infiltrated parts of the engine where it didn’t belong, resulting in damage and, eventually, premature engine breakdown and failure. By 2010, GM recommended to its dealers that they clean the pistons of the vehicles in question. That solution was ineffective and company engineers and other employees recommended that the piston ring design be changed. GM made other ineffective engine design changes in 2011, but the oil consumption issues persisted until GM finally discontinued production of the engine following the 2014 model year.
What’s notable about the lawsuit’s allegations are the claims that GM knew about the defect and didn’t correct it. The allegation has a familiar ring to it.
A Georgia jury recently handed down a $1.7 billion punitive judgment against Ford for allegedly selling Super Duty trucks with flimsy roofs that failed internal testing but Ford continued selling them, resulting in the deaths of a Georgia farming couple. Ford earlier settled class action lawsuits for knowingly selling vehicles with faulty transmissions.
GM said it plans to appeal, as has Ford.
Arden Hoffman: GM’s People Person
It’s surprising how little media coverage GM’s appointment of Arden Hoffman as the company’s “Chief People Officer” has received. The position, once known as head of human resources, is one of GM’s most critical jobs, given Barra’s recent debacle instructing employees to return to the office three days a week and then being forced to back down after they publicly resisted.
At first blush, Hoffman seems like a curious choice to be the chief people officer for an organization employing 157,000 persons around the globe. Hoffman joins from GM’s San Francisco-based Cruise self-driving subsidiary, which recently got slammed for wreaking havoc on San Francisco’s streets because of repeated malfunctions. Prior to joining Cruise, GM said she was “vice president of People” at Dropbox, and before that served in “numerous people leader roles” at Google and Goldman Sachs.
Hoffman is clearly a “people person.” She also strikes me as interesting: In addition to a Wharton MBA, she received a BA in rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley.
Cruise has a compelling website, and if it hadn’t sold out to GM, I’d likely be jazzed about the upstart company. It promises employees “the best work of your career can happen here. It’s why we do things differently – to support creativity and curiosity while weeding out big egos and outdated processes.”
Indications are that Hoffman doesn’t have a big ego because with her impressive resume she could easily garner lots of press, but she appears to shun the limelight. The only article I found about Hoffman was this 2008 interview with The Glass Hammer, in which Hoffman talked about some of the pioneering work she did at Goldman Sachs, where in addition to being head of learning and development for the firm’s technology division, she served as co-chair of GALN, Goldman’s gay and lesbian network of employees.
Hoffman’s interview is worth a read, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. She talked about the importance and benefits of joining corporate affinity networks and how belonging can foster professional development. The interview also contained other valuable career tips and insights. What betrayed Hoffman as the real deal is she didn’t engage in HR speak and judiciously avoided jargon and cliches. It’s abundantly clear that Hoffman is focused and can articulate a vision.
Notably, Cruise on its website highlights the various company community groups and clubs.
When I think GM, I think Mary Barra, a legacy of GM’s ethically challenged leadership focused on personal financial enrichment rather than the betterment of employees and transforming the automaker into a world-class vehicle manufacturing company. Hoffman strikes me as a major gust of fresh air, someone who could inspire GM employees to want to return to the office and give Elon Musk a run for his money.