DETROIT—Grace Lieblein, General Motors' vice president of global quality and a key player in GM's bid to improve its supplier relations in recent years, will retire at the end of the month.
Her retirement was announced internally earlier this month, a GM spokeswoman confirmed. Her replacement will be announced “at a later date,” according to an internal memo.
Lieblein, 55, is one of GM's highest-ranking women and a close confidant of CEO Mary Barra, having risen through the company's engineering ranks together. Lieblein took the top quality job a year ago, reporting directly to Barra. That followed GM's tumultuous spate of 84 safety recalls covering about 30 million vehicles in 2014, including a faulty ignition switch that has been linked to 124 deaths.
“Whether launching new vehicles, running global operations or driving home quality for our customers, Grace has always built and led high-performing, results-driven teams,” Barra said in the memo. “Throughout her career, she has sought out and accepted tough assignments” and “challenged the status quo.”
Lieblein's appointment to the quality post was seen as a stabilizing move amid heightened scrutiny of GM's safety protocols in the wake of the recall crisis. GM's safety activities will be under government oversight until 2017 under a consent decree entered into last year with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the company's admission that it bungled the ignition-switch recall.
Lieblein's retirement, which GM said was long planned, means the company will be moving on to its fourth quality chief in less than four years. Lieblein had replaced Alicia Boler-Davis, who was re-assigned as senior vice president of GM's global connected customer experience. Boler-Davis had the company's top quality job since mid-2012.
Lieblein spent from 2013 through most of 2014 running GM's massive purchasing division, which buys nearly $100 billion worth of parts and materials annually. She implemented several significant initiatives during that time, including a system that rewards some suppliers with contracts for multiple vehicle generations if they hit certain cost targets.
Lieblein also earned some goodwill from suppliers in 2013, when she rolled back some contentious elements contained in a new GM supplier contract framework. Some language in the contract led many suppliers to conclude that GM was impeding on their intellectual-property rights and exposing them to greater warranty and recall costs.
Lieblein said the terms were being misinterpreted but scrapped them anyway to assuage supplier concerns, even acknowledging that the terms were “a misstep.”
She also put in place a new system for nurturing closer ties to its largest, most strategic suppliers. Called Strategic Supplier Engagement, the program offers benefits such as better access to GM purchasing brass and joint strategic planning to suppliers who rate highly on open communication, technology sharing and other facets of the purchaser-supplier relationship.
Lieblein grew up in Los Angeles and is GM's highest-ranking Hispanic woman—her father was from Cuba and her mother from Nicaragua. She was the first woman to run GM Mexico, a post she held from 2009-11. After that she ran GM's operations in Brazil, one of the automaker's largest markets.
Last month, Lieblein was named for the third time to Automotive News' list of 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry. She was also on Fortune magazine's list of the 10 Most Powerful Women in Automotive in 2013.
Her husband, Tom, is a recently retired GM engineer.
From 2004-08, Lieblein was chief engineer on GM's large crossovers, the Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia. In an interview this summer with Automotive News, a sister publication of Rubber & Plastics News, she called that assignment a key turning point in her career because it raised her profile inside the company and immersed her in the business side of vehicle development.
“I went from being somebody in engineering to somebody who got exposure to the broader base of leadership,” she said.
In the interview, Lieblein said her willingness to take new jobs outside of her comfort zone helped her advance up GM's executive hierarchy.
“I have always been slightly hesitant when somebody wants to give me a new job. There's always the voice in the back of your head saying, “You don't have experience in that,” or “I'm not sure you can do that,'” she said. “I've had to get over that.”