She&'s driving GM in a new direction

Julia Steyn says Maven’s role is to “take the friction out” of the process of getting around.

Julia Steyn was persuaded to join General Motors several years ago after she decided that the car business had the power to “change people’s lives.”

Now she has the opportunity to reshape GM itself.

As head of GM’s Maven personal-mobility brand, Steyn is far removed from GM central casting. After many years as an investment banker, Steyn spent time as a high-level executive at aluminum maker Alcoa before GM wooed her to run its mergers and acquisitions business in 2012.

Now she’s running Maven, a business venture that GM considers strategically critical. Consider these comments from GM President Dan Ammann in October 2015:

“By migrating our customer relationship to the mobile device over time, that gives us a platform with which we can then engage with our customers to offer services that are beyond just the traditional owner-driver business model.”

Maven customers use an app, above, to find a nearby car, reserve it, and remotely start it and unlock the doors.

That, in a nutshell, is the mission of Maven. Formed in January, the brand has grown rapidly into a test lab for the automaker’s experiments in vehicle sharing and transportation services. Maven operates a fleet of cars for luxury condo complexes in Manhattan. It launched a car-sharing service under the Maven name in several cities. It runs the leasing service for Lyft drivers under GM’s partnership with the ride-hailing company. 

Together, those new services are “building blocks toward a scalable new mobility portal,” Steyn said in an interview. “It’s a road map to what we perceive will be the future.” 

She’s encouraged by the early results. Customers have logged 2.5 million miles under all of those services. Demand for cars in the Lyft leasing fleet far outstrips supply. The customer demographics are broader than GM expected, too. Steyn’s team figured the car-sharing business in the college town of Ann Arbor, Mich., would contract in the summer when the students left town. But it continued to grow — most of its customers are in their 30s and 40s.

“It’s a business-changing strategy for GM to go from being a business-to-business company — selling cars to dealers — to offering a consumer value proposition and experience.”

Roger Lanctot
analyst, Strategy Analytics

“It’s clear that there’s a tremendous interest in the service aspect of transportation,” Steyn said. 

Maven’s role, she said, is to “take the friction out” of the process of getting around. Under the Maven car-sharing service, for example, customers use an app to find a nearby car, reserve it, remotely start it and unlock the doors. The Maven+ service at the Ritz Plaza and other swanky apartment buildings in New York eliminates the need for customers to deal with street parking restrictions — hassles Steyn knows well as a New Yorker.

It’s a smart strategy for GM to focus on “all of those pain points” of car ownership and getting around, says Roger Lanctot, an analyst at research firm Strategy Analytics. 

But whether Maven can emerge as a force in the fast-evolving world of mobility services remains to be seen, Lanctot says. 

“It’s a business-changing moment for GM to go from being a business-to-business company — selling cars to dealers — to offering a consumer value proposition and experience,” he said. “They are not equipped for that. It’s a huge challenge but also a huge opportunity.” 

Steyn commutes each week to Detroit, where she oversees a team of about 50 people at Maven’s cavernous, sparse headquarters at GM’s main engineering center. The office has a startup vibe, complete with lounge areas and table tennis. Another 20 Maven employees are in San Francisco, and a growing roster of field staffers push Maven’s head count to more than 100. 

A classical pianist who emigrated to the U.S. from Russia when she was 15, Steyn jokes that she’s a “recovering investment banker,” having worked for Goldman Sachs in London, Moscow and New York. She’s glad she listened to GM’s recruitment pitch four years ago. 

“I couldn’t’ imagine a more interesting industry right now to be in with all the changes,” Steyn said. “I have a chance to be at the forefront of that.”

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