Last updated: December 10, 2013 2:59 pm

GM names first female chief executive

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Mary Barra©Bloomberg

General Motors, once an archetypal bastion of middle-aged male executives, on Tuesday became the first of the big three US carmakers to appoint a female leader when it said Mary Barra would take over as chief executive next month.

Ms Barra, who worked her way up through the GM engineering operation from the age of 18 to become global head of product development for the US’s biggest automaker by sales, will take over from Dan Akerson, 65, chief executive since 2010.

Mr Akerson has brought forward his planned retirement “by several months,” the company said, after his wife was diagnosed with “an advanced stage of cancer”.

Ms Barra, 51, joins Ginni Rometty at IBM, Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard and Marillyn Hewson at Lockheed Martin as one of the most prominent female leaders of a US blue-chip company.

Her appointment also elevates the significance of engineering at a company traditionally run by executives from its finance operations. As head of product development since 2011, Ms Barra has been a key figure in GM’s revival and return to profitability.

Mr Akerson told reporters on a conference call that it was “like watching your daughter graduate from college” to be able to name Ms Barra – the board’s unanimous choice – as chief executive. She was “one of the most gifted executives” he had met in his career, he said.

“She was picked for her talent, not her gender,” Mr Akerson said.

“Mary went into an organisation that quite frankly four years ago was chaos,” he said of the company’s product development operations. “[She] brought order and started to fundamentally transform how we do product development.”

Her appointment came the day after the US Treasury – which oversaw the company’s managed bankruptcy and restructuring – said it had sold the last of its shares in the company. The Treasury at one point controlled 60.8 per cent of GM’s equity.

However, Mr Akerson said it was “an old perception” to see the company as being male-dominated, pointing out that women ran around 25 per cent of its factories. The company has also previously had female country heads in Latin America, running its Brazilian and Mexican operations.

Ms Barra’s appointment marks a return to GM’s tradition of appointing company insiders to top jobs. Mr Akerson was an executive at Carlyle, the private equity group, before Steven Rattner, head of the Treasury’s auto industry task force, brought him in to lead the company through its post-bankruptcy IPO in 2010.

GM is also splitting Mr Akerson’s roles, naming Theodore Solso, a GM board member since June 2012 and the former chairman and CEO of Cummins, the power units manufacturer, to succeed him as chairman.

Ms Barra beat Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, who will take over as head of product development, and Dan Ammann, chief financial officer, who will become company president, to secure the top job.

This story has been amended to remove a reference to Hyundai Group, which does not include Hyundai Motor


Letter in response to this article:

Creative flair at a premium in top appointments / From Mr Duncan Reed

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