June 5, 2023

General Motors boss Marissa West is leaving for Canada

Marissa West, president of GM Canada, with the electric 2023 Cadillac LYRIQ at the GM Canadian Technical Center in Markham, Ont., on Oct. 14.Christopher Katsarov / The Globe and Mail

Marissa West peers intently through the driver’s side window of a shiny silver Cadillac Lyriq — the $70,000 SUV that will lead General Motors Co.’s GM-N to become North America’s dominant electric vehicle maker.

Ms. West, who was named head of GM Canada in April, watches software engineers in the company’s two-story technical center in Markham, Ont., conduct tests on a car that will hit showrooms next year. They are introducing the latest version of the touch screen in Cadillac’s digital dashboard.

Tap one corner of the screen, and the driver can see how far the batteries can go: a full charge takes the car over 500 kilometers. Tap again and the distance to the nearest charging station will be displayed. Using the screen is as easy as changing radio stations or turning on the seat heater. According to early reviews, the Lyriq’s control panel beats Tesla’s equivalent SUV control panel.

Ms. For West, getting the dashboard right is critical to attracting new car buyers who like electric vehicles, in part because they fear running out of juice on road trips. Delivering state-of-the-art software written by the automaker’s 830-engine team in Markham and Oshawa, Ont., is crucial for Canada to win an outsized share of the $35 billion GM is investing in electric vehicle production by 2025.

“I’ve come to a time when we’re leading not only the transformation of the Canadian automotive industry, but the transformation of our company,” he said. Speaking to The Globe and Mail last month — his first in-depth interview since taking the helm at the 5,100-employee company — the graduate of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University engineering schools shared how GM is preparing for an all-electric future.

His work means both renewing factories and retraining drivers. In Canada, consumers have been reluctant to get behind the wheel of EVs or EVs due to the high purchase price, range and lack of charging infrastructure. According to a study by the International Energy Agency, electric vehicles accounted for 4.2 percent of new car sales in Canada last year. On the other hand, almost three quarters of all cars sold in Norway and more than half of the cars sold in Iceland were electric.

GM’s priorities include making electric cars more affordable, Ms. West said, referring to the planned introduction of the Chevrolet Equinox for about $35,000 while ramping up production of the Chevy Bolt in the same price range. The company is also working with 450 retailers in Canada to expand charging networks and pay to install 10 charging stations at a location of the retailer’s choosing. GM’s engineering facility in Markham has 14 charging stations in the guest parking area.

While several provinces, including Quebec and British Columbia, as well as the U.S. government offer subsidies to buyers of electric vehicles, Ontario last month banned tax credits for electric drivers.

“We work well with our governments, but I admit we’re disappointed that Canadian consumers aren’t paying much more attention to electric vehicle capabilities because they tell us they need to see a lot more electric vehicle charging infrastructure and better incentives for consumers to buy electric vehicles,” Ms. West said.

On the production side, GM’s goal is to produce one million electric cars annually in North America by 2025, which is more than twice the current global capacity. To get there, the automaker is bringing battery production in-house, shortening supply chains and revamping every car and truck brand in its portfolio.

“We are building the capabilities we need to transform GM into a technology company rather than a traditional automaker.”

Ms. West said that as the Detroit headquarters decide where to build new factories, a well-educated workforce and a low-emission power grid across the border will “block a generational opportunity for Canada.”

GM Canada scored an early win in the company’s electric vehicle development by securing an order in early 2021 to build electric trucks at CAMI’s plant in Ingersoll, Ont. The $1 billion facility, partially funded by $259 million in contributions from both the provincial and federal governments, is expected to begin production by the end of the year.

“This is the fastest complete turnaround of a plant in GM’s history,” Ms. West said. The company’s Oshawa truck engine plant previously held this record.

“Canada has established itself with launch speed and the ability to reach aggressive targets.”

However, GM is also investing billions in electric cars in the US and Mexico. The company builds Cadillac Lyriqs in Tennessee and electric pickup trucks and GMC Hummers in Michigan. The automaker’s three battery plants — joint ventures with Korea’s LG Energy Solution Ltd. — went to Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. In the near future, GM plans to build at least one additional battery plant.

But these new facilities face teething pains. RBC Capital Markets analyst Joseph Spak said in a report last week that GM pushed back its annual production target of 400,000 electric cars from next year to the first half of 2024 due to issues related to hiring and training workers, ensuring production quality and integrating LG’s battery. technology.

According to an RBC analyst, GM is under pressure from investors to ramp up production of electric vehicles quickly as the automaker’s financial performance is currently suffering due to the lower profit margins of electric Cadillacs and Chevrolets compared to gasoline vehicles.

“Scale is needed to push EV margins higher, and GM is in the early stages of bringing its EV products to market,” Spak said.

How does Mrs. West convince her boss in Michigan to build more factories in Canada? It’s a critical issue in cities like Oshawa and St. Catharines, Ont., both home to GM plants that make internal combustion engines.

“One GM facility shouldn’t feel left behind because they’re building internal combustion vehicles,” he said. “We’re going to live in this dichotomous world between internal combustion and electric cars for a while.”

Going forward, GM prefers to build new EV facilities in places where the company has “an existing footprint and a large assembly plant,” he said. “It’s a comprehensive effort, working with the union and the government to make sure the conditions are right.”

Over the past two years, St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik worked with the automaker, provincial and federal politicians on a “complex” $109 million expansion of GM’s engine plant. The project included a $28 million investment in a landfill gas-powered production facility and cut the GM plant’s net greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent.

“As we move toward electrification, we have the opportunity to innovate with large employers like GM to ensure the viability of their operations and our community,” Sendzik said. During several meetings with Ms. West, he said, it became clear that GM management valued a highly skilled workforce and the security of North American supply chains over reliance on foreign suppliers.

Ms. West has spent his entire career at GM, starting as a student intern in 2001 while still studying mechanical engineering. In college, for fun, he built a racing car with his classmates. Before moving to Toronto last spring, the mother of four ran GM’s truck development program, introducing new versions of some of the automaker’s best-selling and most profitable pickups, the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado. His predecessor as president of GM Canada, Scott Bell, rose to the automaker’s sales side and moved back to headquarters in April to become head of GM’s Chevrolet division.

As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated auto industry, she said GM relies on diversity and innovation in the workplace to transition to electric cars: “We aim to be the most inclusive company in the world. That’s important because it means we’re representing our customer base.”

How does GM fare in this area? Days before the Globe and Mail interview at the Markham plant, Ms. West was on stage at the company’s Oshawa plant with GM CEO Mary Barra and Unifor national president Lana Payne. They were three female executives in the automotive industry who spoke to more than 500 employees, 54 percent of whom were women.

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