There’s a new “car gal” in the Motor City.
General Motors announced Tuesday that Mary Barra, the company’s senior vice president for global product development, will become the first female CEO to lead one of Detroit’s Big Three, when she takes over for Dan Akerson on Jan. 15. The selection instantly makes the 33-year GM veteran one of the most powerful and visible female executives in the world.
Mrs. Barra will replace Dan Akerson, 65, who accelerated his retirement plans by a few months after learning that his wife has an advanced form of cancer. Mr. Akerson took over as CEO in September 2010, when GM was struggling to survive, and is credited with rebuilding the company from the ground up — with some major financial help from the government and taxpayers.
Mr. Akerson hinted that Mrs. Barra, 51, would be the company’s next CEO a few months ago, telling a women’s business group in Detroit that it wouldn’t be long before a “car gal” was in charge of one of Detroit’s three automakers.
“My goals as CEO were to put the customer at the center of every decision we make, to position GM for long-term success and to make it a company that America can be proud of again,” Mr. Akerson said in a statement. “We are well down that path, and I’m certain that our new team will keep us moving in that direction.”
By taking over America’s No. 1 automaker, Mrs. Barra gives a boost to women in business all around the country.
“I want to extend my congratulations to Mary Barra on being named the first female CEO of General Motors and of any Big Three auto manufacturer,” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, said in a statement. “As a lifelong and a second-generation GM employee, Ms. Barra’s understanding of GM’s top-to-bottom operations make her a wise choice to lead the company. I look forward to seeing Ms. Barra and GM succeed in this new era of leadership.”
Analysts say Mrs. Barra holds one of the most important jobs in the company, as GM’s head of global product development, because she oversees design, engineering and quality at General Motors. She started at the company in 1980, as an electrical engineering co-op student.
The other known candidates for the job were Chief Financial Officer Dan Ammann, North American President Mark Reuss, and Vice Chairman Steve Girsky.
Theodore Solso, the former chairman and CEO of Cummins Inc., will replace Mr. Akerson as chairman of the board at GM, where he has been a member since June 2012.
The move comes one day after the Obama administration announced Monday that the Treasury Department had ended its relationship with General Motors, selling its final shares in the company, and signifies that GM is trying to turn the page on that dark chapter in its history.
GM is now profitable. Shares fell slightly following Tuesday’s announcement, closing down 50 cents, or more than 1 percent, at $40.40, but the company’s stock price has more than doubled since July 2012.
Mr. Akerson was the face of “Government Motors” for the last three years after inheriting a company that was saddled with heavy debts and needed Washington’s help to pay its bills. But he quickly turned GM into a profitable operation.
GM received $49.5 billion in bailout funds, most of which came under Mr. Akerson’s tenure. The Treasury Department lost more than $10 billion on the shares it obtained in the deal, but supporters of the program said the rescue saved millions of auto workers’ jobs in the process.
Outside analysts said Mrs. Barra’s deep experience with the company and familiarity with its product lines was a major factor in her selection.
”There’s nobody with more years of honest ‘car-guy’ credentials than she has,” University of Michigan business professor Erik Gordon told The Associated Press. “She started off as a little-girl car guy. She became a big-girl car guy and now she’s a woman car guy. She’s the one to do the breakthrough.”