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Expect the Unexpected: GM’s Mark Reuss Looks to a Sustainable Post-Pandemic Future

By Paul Eisenstein

It began almost imperceptibly, as workers along the line began falling ill. Within weeks, it soon was apparent, COVID had come to America and, like much of the country, the auto industry needed to respond with drastic measures. Workers were sent home. Factories shut down, and a downturn to rival the Great Recession seemed inevitable.

Despite the dire forecasts, the auto industry has pulled through much better than expected. If anything, manufacturers have used the crisis to make massive changes impacting everything from the way factories operate to the way vehicles are sold. And there are more changes to come, President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order accelerating the shift from internal combustion engines to battery power.

At General Motors, President Mark Reuss is a key player in the company’s response to COVID, as well as its push into electrification. The comparison to GM’s role in World War II, as part of the “Arsenal of Democracy,” is “an opt one,” Reuss said. Not only did GM have to set in place protocols for reopening its factories, it also began the “Herculean task” of rolling out the ventilators and masks desperately needed to fight the pandemic.

“And through it all, we never wavered from our commitment to EVs and realigning our product portfolio. In fact, we doubled down,” said Reuss. Just weeks before the March 2020 industry shutdown, CEO Mary Barra announced GM would invest $20 billion in its electrified and autonomous vehicle program. That figure now stands at $35 billion.

“We view electric vehicles as a growth business, and believe the best way General Motors can keep the recovery going is by doing exactly what we’re doing – leading the charge toward an all-electric future by launching new EVs, pushing for EV adoption and infrastructure installation and keeping Americans employed by the tens of thousands,” said Reuss.

This means a continued emphasis on “sustainability.” That has numerous interpretations, including long-term profitability but, “For the purposes of Mackinac, “the way to look at sustainability is in the context of helping the planet and fighting climate change,” said Reuss – who believes the shift to EVs “will happen more quickly than most people can imagine.”

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES CREATED BY PANDEMIC 

GM’s goal is to eliminate sales of vehicles using internal combustion engines by 2035. For now, however, the company has more immediate challenges, including disruptions from the ongoing pandemic. “This is an insidious virus with multiple variants and it’s not going to go away on its own,” said Reuss.

The automaker nearly had to cut production at a plant in Missouri due to a shortage of manpower in July. And that highlights the challenge it – like much of America – faces hiring new workers.

GM, he said, is in “hiring mode,” adding social media to traditional recruiting means, and reaching out through “friends and families (of) our current team.” The good news is that the focus on a high-tech future is helping GM – and its competitors – win the sort of talent that, for many years, steered clear of the auto industry.

One of the biggest challenges stemming from the pandemic has been the shortage of semiconductor chips. According to a study by AlixPartners, the industry will take at least a $110 billion hit due to lost production and sales. While GM had to trim production of some truck models like the highly profitable Chevrolet Silverado in July, it’s fared better than many rivals.

“The chip shortage has really reinforced the creativity and agility of our teams to manage just about any issue,” Reuss said. “We plan for all kinds of scenarios, and I think anybody who looks at our balance sheet would have to say we are weathering the storms pretty well.”

EXCEEDING WALL STREET’S EXPECTATIONS 

Despite production cuts and slim inventories, the automaker delivered a net profit of $2.8 billion for Q2, handily exceeding Wall Street expectations.

“It sounds cliché to say, ‘Expect the unexpected.’ But what else could be the lesson of the last year or two? And who knows what’s going to be next? You can’t just sit around and wait for the locusts to roll in,” said Reuss. “You have to plan proactively and resolve to react quickly and decisively, to anything.”

Paul Eisenstein is publisher and editor-in-chief of automotive news site TheDetroitBureau.com.