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GM CEO Mary Barra Moves to Take Command

Tickers in this article: GM
DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- Thursday conceivably will be recalled as the day Mary Barra emerged as a leader.

The GM CEO took on a full day of disclosure, apology, exhortation and pledging that GM will never again repeat the mistakes surrounding its ignition switch problems, which led to at least 13 deaths, 47 crashes, the recall of 2.6 million cars and then to a worldwide recall of 15.8 million cars with more to come, Barra said Thursday.

Barra's public events were accompanied by the release of a highly critical 300-page report detailing the results of an internal investigation by former U.S. attorney Anton Valukas. He reviewed 41 million pages of documents and conducted 350 interviews with 230 people.

Barra took over as GM CEO in January, becoming the first woman to head a major automaker. The scandal involving the ignition switch recall began to unfold on Feb. 7, when GM announced it would recall about 800,000 cars.

In April, Barra made two appearances before accusatory congressional committees. Two weeks later, she made two appearances accompanying the New York Auto Show, where she was one more taciturn CEO playing defense. In all four cases, she was one more taciturn CEO playing defense.

On Thursday morning, she appeared before 1,200 GM employees. It was not quite that moment on Sept. 14, 2001, when George Bush stood next to an elderly firefighter, grabbed a bullhorn and said "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." Rather, Barra remained resolutely on script. However, she did seem to take control in a way she had not before the report was released.

Early on, she declared: "As I lead GM through this crisis, I want everyone to know that I am guided by two clear principles: First, that we do the right thing for those who were harmed; and, second, that we accept responsibility for our mistakes and commit to doing everything within our power to prevent this problem from ever happening again."

She noted that Valukas' report as "extremely thorough, brutally tough and deeply troubling. For those of us who have dedicated our lives to this company, it is enormously painful to have our shortcomings laid out so vividly. 

"But this isn't about our feelings or our egos," she said. "This is about our responsibility to act with integrity, honor and a commitment to excellence."

Barra's task is eased significantly because consumers seem willing to give the automaker's new cars a chance. GM sales gained 13% in May, two points ahead of the industry's sales pace. She could have been a CEO racing to save the company as sales fell. Instead, she is being given the opportunity to mold an image of a safety-oriented company willing to recall too early rather than recall too late.