General Motors CEO Mary Barra, with departing chief Dan Akerson, tour the Detroit auto show Tuesday. Akerson retired after serving three years as the automaker's top executive. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
General Motors Co. makes history today as the first female to lead an automaker takes the reins of the global powerhouse that sells nearly 10 million vehicles a year in more than 140 countries and employs more than 214,000 people.
Mary Barra, who has spent her entire 33-year career with GM, today becomes its CEO. Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson retires after three years leading the company out of bankruptcy, through its initial public stock offering and to 15 straight profitable quarters.
“Jan. 15, 2014 will go down in history as a significant milestone in the history of the global auto industry,” said veteran auto industry analyst Michelle Krebs.
Today marks Barra’s coronation day. She has worked in numerous areas of the company, starting her career as an intern at 18 on the factory floor and worked her way up through roles in engineering. She served as a plant manager and head of human resources. Akerson in 2011 elevated her status in the industry when he put her in charge of GM product development. She added GM’s global purchasing and supply chain responsibilities in August 2013.
“It’s extremely significant, because if you can think of any industry that was historically male, it would be the auto industry,” said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.
Barra, 52, has been thrust into the spotlight since GM announced her appointment Dec. 10 and has been the star of the North American International Auto Show.
Akerson, a private equity executive who joined GM’s board in 2009 and became CEO a year later, said he is leaving the company in qualified hands. He said GM has built a team to work together — one that is crafted to excel under each leader’s skill sets.
“We play as a team. That’s the strength of this management team. We play well together,” Akerson, 65, told The Detroit News last month.
Akerson, who leaves a more profitable and streamlined company, will bid farewell to GM and Detroit during a chat-style interview at the Automotive News World Congress this evening. He is leaving the company earlier than had been expected to care for his wife Karin, who is battling cancer.
Under his tenure, GM exited government ownership, regained investment grade status, returned to the Standard & Poor’s 100 and 500 indexes and said Tuesday it will issue its first shareholder dividend since 2008.
Early Tuesday, when much of the media wasn’t watching, Barra and Akerson, other GM executives and GM board members, toured the auto show. They scouted competitive vehicles, including the 2015 Ford Mustang and new Chrysler 200 sedan.
Barra told reporters this week that she wants to continue the momentum in building strong brands, operating profitably in all of its worldwide regions and building its balance sheet.
Also effective today, Dan Ammann takes over as president, a new position that was crafted to keep eyes on GM’s regional operations. Mark Reuss takes Barra’s job as global product development chief and Alan Batey, senior vice president of Global Chevrolet and U.S. sales and marketing, steps into Reuss’ role as GM North America president.
“Dan Ammann and myself and Mark Reuss, we just want to continue the focus on the product because that’s key,” Barra said.
GM late Tuesday also named Chuck Stevens chief financial officer, effective today. Stevens, 54, who had been the company’s CFO for North America since January 2010 and began his career in 1983 with Buick, will succeed Ammann as CFO. John Stapleton, CFO of GM’s global manufacturing, will move into Stevens’ role.
GM also has a new chairman: Theodore “Tim” Solso, a GM board member and former chairman and CEO of Cummins Inc.
Much of the leadership transition has already occurred. Reuss called his move the most seamless he’s ever had at the company and called Batey his wing man for years in North America.
Under Barra’s watch this year are numerous new vehicle launches, including more than 10 new or significantly updated vehicles in the U.S. alone.
GM has a test in Europe, where it wants to stop the billions of dollars in losses since 1999 and wants to break even in the region by mid decade.
Barra also takes over a company whose U.S. market share has stagnated in the U.S. in recent years and gave up the global sales title to Toyota.
She’ll also be looked at to increase profit margins, transaction prices and brand image.
Krebs said Barra will probably be subject to unfair pressure with all eyes on her.
“She will make mistakes. Everybody does,” Krebs said. “And these will be magnified.”