DETROIT – Mary Barra has spent the past three years as General Motors’ product chief, making cars that drive better, last longer and look good in showrooms.
Now she will take on an even bigger job. On Tuesday, the board tapped the 33-year company veteran to be the next CEO, making her the first woman to lead a major car company.
Barra replaces Dan Akerson, who moved up retirement plans by several months to help his wife, Karin, battle advanced cancer.
When Barra starts her new job Jan. 15, she will lead a company that’s made nearly $20 billion since emerging from bankruptcy in 2010, much of it from the cars and trucks she helped develop. But she still faces challenges in paring down GM’s costs and winning over buyers in international markets such as India and South America.
Akerson, 65, said he had planned to stay at least until spring, but his wife’s diagnosis changed that. He said the board unanimously picked Barra from several internal candidates because of the breadth of her experience, her management record, her people skills and her understanding of GM’s operations.
“This is an executive who has a vision of where she wants to take the organization,” he said.
Since February 2011, Barra has held what many say is the most important job at GM – senior vice president for global product development. She joined the company in 1980 as an engineering student and became a plant manager, executive director of engineering and head of human resources.
Along the way, she earned a reputation as a manager who made tough decisions, yet was able to get people to follow her lead and work as a team, according to current and former GM executives.
The 51-year-old executive has been in charge of design, engineering and quality for all GM vehicles and has shepherded most of the company’s recent new vehicle introductions. Under her command, GM rolled out brawny new full-size pickup trucks, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, and the Chevrolet Impala full-size car, which earned the highest score for a sedan in testing by Consumer Reports magazine.
During her tenure, GM’s quality scores rose in surveys done by J.D. Power and Associates. She also streamlined the organization, eliminating positions and putting one engineer in charge of each vehicle.
Barra has a rare combination of GM and auto industry knowledge and an ability to make changes, said Ed Whitacre, a former CEO and chairman who promoted Barra to head human resources.
“I don’t see any reason why she won’t be a huge success,” he said.
Akerson hinted at Barra’s promotion earlier this year when he told a women’s business group in Detroit that a “car gal” would someday run one of the Detroit Three automakers. But he made it clear Tuesday that she wasn’t picked because she’s a woman.
“Mary’s one of the most gifted executives I’ve met in my career,” he said.
Among Barra’s biggest tasks is executing plans designed to cut costs and put out better products, Akerson said. One big step in getting there: making more vehicles off the same underpinnings, or platforms, that can be sold in multiple markets, like the Chevrolet Cruze compact car.
Barra grew up near Pontiac, Mich., in a car-oriented family. Her father was a die maker who retired from GM after 39 years. GM’s previous two CEOs, Akerson and Whitacre, came from outside the auto industry and lacked the experience that Barra has, said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
“There’s nobody with more years of honest ‘car guy’ credentials than she has,” Gordon said. “She’s the one to do the breakthrough.”