Born with 'gasoline in his blood,' GM's Reuss adds president to long list of duties

  • General Motors named company insider Mark Reuss as president Thursday.
  • The 55-year-old's father also served as GM president nearly three decades ago.
  • Reuss was once seen as a contender for CEO before Mary Barra got the job.
Mark Reuss, General Motors Executive Vice President Global Product Development, speaking last January.
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Mark Reuss, General Motors Executive Vice President Global Product Development, speaking last January.

Mark Reuss, the global head of General Motors' product development operations, will add "president" to his already expansive list of duties — the latest in a series of management tweaks under CEO Mary Barra.

The 55-year-old Reuss – whose father also served as GM president nearly three decades ago – replaces Dan Ammann.

Ammann moved over to the company's autonomous vehicle subsidiary, Cruise Automation, last November. But Reuss will assume only some of Ammann's former duties in a paired down role as president, allowing him to retain his current focus on product.

Saying that Reuss has played a "critical role" at GM in his current assignment, GM Chairman and CEO Barra added, "Mark's global operational experience, deep product knowledge and strong leadership will serve us well as we continue to strengthen our current business, take advantage of growth opportunities and further define the future of personal mobility."

Gasoline in his veins

Reuss is wont to say he has "gasoline in his blood." Having trained as an engineer, his duties as product development chief have been as much passion as avocation. It is a job that frequently lets him shed his suit and tie for a helmet and fireproof racing suit while testing new products at the General Motors Proving Grounds in Milford, Michigan, an hour northwest of its corporate headquarters along the Detroit riverfront.

He joined the automaker in 1983 as a student intern. It was a period of massive change under then-Chairman and CEO Jack Smith. In 1990, as the controversial chairman retired, Mark Reuss's father Lloyd was named GM president, but he held that post only two years before being ousted in the first in a series of activist investor-led revolts.

The younger Reuss remained with GM and, over the next two decades served in a broad mix of posts testing his business acumen as well as his engineering skills. That included a run as head of the automaker's long-struggling Australian subsidiary, Holden, which recently shuttered its manufacturing operations.

Big break

Reuss got his big break in 2001 when he was tasked with creating a new performance division where he got the chance to oversee development of a variety of vehicles, including the Chevrolet Corvette, as well as the reborn Chevy Camaro.

While never generating significant volume, those products helped shine GM's star, tarnished by some of the poorly reviewed products it had produced during the 1980s and 1990s, an era when it was sometimes dismissed as "Malaise Motors."

But things continued to go from bad to worse for the company saddled with debt and facing ever tougher competition from European and Asian imports. By 2010, GM was forced to enter a carefully managed bankruptcy, surviving only with the help of a massive federal bailout. Most of its top management team, starting with then-Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, were unceremoniously booted, much as Lloyd Reuss had been nearly two decades earlier. Son Mark was, however, one of the survivors.

Plum assignment

And he landed a plum assignment that would test both the business and product side of his skills as the new head of North American Operations.

By mid-decade, Reuss was seen as a potential contender for CEO. But as Dan Akerson, an industry outsider who joined GM post-bankruptcy, announced his retirement, the job instead went to another top lieutenant. Like Reuss, Mary Barra had also started at GM as a college co-op student and also came from a GM family – though her father was a factory "shop rat."

For his part, Reuss got a major consolation prize, heading global product development – a job that frequently leds him shed his suit and tie for a helmet and fireproof racing suit. Last June, he was also named head of Cadillac and has been heavily involved in the development of a stream of new vehicles expected to roll out of the luxury brand every six months through 2021.

Too many hats

Under his new assignment as president, Reuss will retain those roles, a decision that analyst Joe Phillippi, head of AutoTrends Consulting, questions. Though Reuss is "very talented," Phillippi said, "he had too many hats to start with. There should be someone running product development and that's all they do all day."

Whether Reuss might eventually shed some of his duties remains to be seen, but observers say that GM's upper management ranks appear to be in a bit of a flux. If anything, the company had indicated it wasn't going to name a new president when Ammann moved over to Cruise Automation as CEO of the San Francisco-based autonomous vehicle development company last November.

For those worried that Reuss may find his time spread thin, a GM spokesman told CNBC that the company's new president won't take over all of the duties that had been on Ammann's plate.

Full speed

When the former president was reassigned, CEO Barra took over responsibility for managing both the automaker's global regions, as well as its "captive" finance subsidiary, GM Financial. Chief Financial Officer Dhivya Suryadevara, meanwhile, assumed control over GM's corporate development operations.

Reuss will take on one new role, overseeing GM's quality control operations which, the automaker noted, dovetails well with his product development duties. Long faulted for reliability issues, GM has, in recent years, made rapid gains, particularly with its Buick and Chevrolet brands, according to studies by outside arbiters such as J.D. Power and Associates.

"I am very proud to have spent my entire career at General Motors, and to now take on this new role is truly a great honor," Reuss said in a statement Thursday. "With our current lineup of outstanding cars, trucks and crossovers around the world, I'm looking forward to keeping our momentum going at full speed."