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Tuesday March 31, 2015
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GM's Cassandra



In 1979 GM offered her the job of vice-president and chief economist, working out of New York City. She took it, and the family moved to Princeton, her hometown. Bob, who still taught at Pitt, became a long-distance commuter. In 1985 she was promoted to group VP and transferred to Detroit. Bob was still willing to commute, but he needed access to a university library-which is how they wound up in Ann Arbor.

She joined GM at a terrible time in the auto industry. Then, too, oil prices had briefly skyrocketed, causing a surge in demand for small cars. While the Big Three frantically downsized their fleets, sales of Japanese cars rose so fast that the government negotiated import limits.

GM and the other American manufacturers rushed more small cars into production-only to see their sales, too, decline once gas prices fell and buyers switched back to big cars and trucks. But as Whitman and her staff saw it, the real problem wasn't fluctuating oil prices-it was GM's much higher costs. The company spent so much to develop and build a new small car, they calculated, that it would have to be sold at a loss.

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