GM CEO Mary Barra bets the General can grow beyond cars and trucks

Pam Fletcher wants to change the way General Motors Co makes money.

The veteran GM engineer’s Global Innovation team is looking for new ventures to expand the automaker’s revenue streams far beyond automotive sales and is in the process of expanding businesses from commercial delivery services to auto insurance to address future markets with an estimated worth of $ 1.3 trillion. That’s not true of flying cars, a market sector that could be worth $ 1.3 trillion alone, Fletcher told Reuters.

During a recent video chat, Fletcher silently counted before answering how many companies her team is tending. “Just under 20,” she said.

The fact that GM is now hatching its own startups – with its corporate venture arm investing in dozens more – underscores Chief Executive Mary Barra’s tremendous effort to recreate the largest US automaker. The goal is to become a diversified mobility service provider, Apple’s automotive equivalent, with monthly or quarterly revenue coming in from software and services long after the original product is sold.

For older automakers like GM, Volkswagen and others trying to overhaul and transform their businesses, that task is daunting, said Evangelos Simoudis, author and business innovation strategy consultant.

“The technologies incorporated into the software-defined vehicle require areas of expertise commonly found in technology companies rather than automotive manufacturers,” he said.

Barra’s effort to transform GM’s age-old business model is already making a significant impact – although the first of a new generation of electric vehicles she has promised is still months after launch.

GM returned $ 24 billion to shareholders in dividends and share buybacks between 2014, when Barra took over, and early 2020. But that buyback was put on hold indefinitely when the pandemic struck last spring.

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Now, Barra told Reuters, the company can use its money more productively: investing in electric vehicles and expanding businesses that promise recurring revenue streams.

GM’s new ventures could add tens of billions to future revenues, Barra said, and increase operating profit margins beyond the current 8% it achieved in 2020, and the 10% it aims for in the long run.

“We have very significant growth opportunities and several initiatives to invest in,” she said in a video interview.

Investors note this

Barra’s shift from stock buybacks to investing in recurring revenue services, coupled with the drive to make GM a full EV company by 2035, has accomplished in one year what a decade of cost savings and cash returns to shareholders could.

GM’s stock price over the past six months has broken out of reach since the company’s initial public offering after bankruptcy in 2010. GM shares hit a post-2010 high of $ 62.23 on March 18 and are close to 50% this year increased. .

Still, GM’s $ 90 billion market cap falls far short of Tesla Inc’s valuation of $ 600 billion, reflecting investor doubt that a 113-year-old Detroit manufacturer can keep up with an 18-year-old Silicon Valley company. that has no technology or personnel legacy burdens to slog through.

“I understand why people may be skeptical (about GM) because this is a company where we’ve seen revolutions announce revolutions for the past half century and for some reason it wasn’t authentic,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a dean of leadership programs at the Yale School of Management.

Barra, he said, “has the authenticity and legitimacy to get it done in a way that many other people wouldn’t.”

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Barra’s attempt to reshape GM’s business is based on an executive corps that combines old GM executives like herself – Barra has been with the company for 40 years – and recent recruits from outside the auto industry.

“We marry people who really understand the auto industry with people who understand these other companies that we think are growth opportunities,” Barra said.

BrightDrop’s big idea

A new venture combining several aspects of GM’s approach is BrightDrop, a unit that will provide electric vans and related hardware to commercial delivery companies, starting with FedEx, along with support services from fleet management to predictive analytics.

GM rival Ford Motor Co is introducing its own electric van and expanding its support services to defend its leading share of the US commercial vehicle market of more than 40%.

BrightDrop, one of the first ‘graduates’ of Fletcher’s innovation incubator, started less than two years ago as an idea initially called Smart Cargo.

Fletcher’s team began hatching Smart Cargo in September 2019, about the same time that another GM group was working on the company’s future electric vehicle portfolio. The “big idea” – marrying an electric van with the software and data-driven delivery services – came out in February 2020.

The venture gained traction in late 2020, when GM recruited longtime tech entrepreneur Travis Katz to become BrightDrop’s president and CEO.

Ultimately, GM leadership wants BrightDrop to operate independently and cultivate “outside ideas and new ways of thinking,” Katz told Reuters.

“We expect BrightDrop to be a very large and very profitable company,” he added. Ultimately, “there will be many lessons to be learned from the BrightDrop experience that flow back to GM.”

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Expanding OnStar

Barra is also building GM’s long-standing OnStar telematics business into a platform for selling insurance and other over-the-air services.

Santiago Chamorro, head of global connected services, has expanded OnStar’s safety and security portfolio with new products and services developed in-house, including OnStar Insurance, Guardian mobile safety app and Vehicle Insights, a data analytics platform for commercial fleet operators.

Insurance, a new arena for GM, is led by Andrew Rose, who previously worked for auto insurers Progressive and the British Admiral Group.

Rose says GM dealers can offer policies to owners when they buy or lease a vehicle. OnStar could offer discounts to better drivers, as well as a faster post-accident claim service, and could eventually offer home insurance as part of the package.

GM has never disclosed OnStar’s financial results, and Barra is not willing to say if or when the company will do so.

“OnStar is already a very important company,” she said. “We think there are opportunities to grow it even beyond our vehicles.”