GM Names Mary Barra as New CEO, First Woman to Lead a Global Automaker

On Tuesday, General Motors named longtime executive Mary Barra as chief executive, making her the first woman to rise to the top of the male-dominated world of U.S. auto manufacturing.

Barra began with GM in 1980 as a student at General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan, where she earned a degree in electrical engineering and landed her first job as a plant engineer at Pontiac Motor Division, where her father worked for 39 years. Photo: Car Fanatics/ Flickr

General Motors Co. (GM) named Mary Barra, who started with GM as an engineering co-op student in 1980, to succeed Dan Akerson as chief executive officer.

The appointment of Barra, 51, is at once groundbreaking – she will be the first woman to lead a global automaker – and yet also very traditional. Her father is a long-time GM employee and Barra has spent her entire 33-year career at the No. 1 U.S. automaker.

Before taking her new post, Barra was senior vice president for global product development. For nearly three years now she’s in charge of design, engineering and quality of all of GM’s vehicles across the globe. She’s also in charge of purchasing and had previously headed the company’s human resources operations.

“With an amazing portfolio of cars and trucks and the strongest financial performance in our recent history, this is an exciting time at today’s GM,” Barra, a 33-year employee of the company, said in a statement. “I’m honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed.”

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 of paring down GM’s costs and winning over buyers in international markets such as India and South America.

“The promotion of Barra as CEO indicates there is more to come in the evolution of the company and may attract some new longer-term investors who were skeptical about an over finance-dominated executive suite,” Barclays analyst Brian Johnson said.

Barra represents a younger generation of auto executive. She will be 52 when she formally takes the job in January, about the same age as Rick Wagoner in 2000 and Fritz Henderson in 2009, when they became CEO. Mark Fields, 52, as Ford Motor Co.’s chief operating officer is the heir apparent to succeed CEO Alan Mulally, 68, who is in talks with Microsoft Corp. about a similar role, according to people familiar with the matter, says Bloomberg.

In early 2011, less than six months after Akerson became CEO, he promoted Barra to head the product-development team once run by legendary car guy Bob Lutz.

GM said on Tuesday that Akerson, who is also the chairman, will leave on January 15. He had planned to step down in mid- to late-2014, but brought that forward after learning about two months ago that his wife had an advanced stage of cancer.

Barra received a masters in business administration from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1990, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from General Motors Institute — now named Kettering University — a decade prior.

Barra will be GM’s fifth CEO in less than five years since Rick Wagoner was forced out by the Obama administration in March 2009 as the company headed towards its bankruptcy filing. The Michigan native will be GM’s fifth female director. Theodore Solso, 66, will succeed Akerson, 65, as chairman.

Before the new CEO was named, some analysts and investors were concerned about whether Barra and the three other internal candidates had enough experience for the job. GM might be trying to address that by naming Solso to the chairman role, reports Reuters.

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