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GM taps 1st female CEO as it emerges from US control

12 december 2013, 10:13
0
Executive vice president of GM. ©Reuters/Rebecca Cook
Executive vice president of GM. ©Reuters/Rebecca Cook
General Motors Tuesday named its first-ever female chief executive as the largest US automaker exits the government-bailout era with sales at their best level in six years, AFP reports.

GM announced that company veteran Mary Barra would succeed Dan Akerson as chief executive on January 15. She will be the first woman in the world to head a major automaker.

Barra, 51, currently works as executive vice president for global product development, purchasing and supply chain. In announcing the news, GM said Barra is "a leader in the company's ongoing turnaround."

Key moments in the comeback included GM's successful return to the stock market in November 2010 and Monday's announcement that the US Treasury sold its last shares in General Motors, closing the books on a 2008 bailout and "Government Motors" period.

The transition comes on the heels of strong auto sales by GM and fellow US automakers, Ford and Chrysler.

"I will leave with great satisfaction in what we have accomplished, great optimism over what is ahead and great pride that we are restoring General Motors as America's standard bearer in the global auto industry," said Akerson in a message to employees.

Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at Edmunds called Tuesday "an historic day for GM and the auto industry" because Barra is the first woman to lead a major auto manufacturer.

Barra has worked at GM for 33 years, rising through a series of manufacturing, engineering and senior staff positions.

Akerson said chatter about GM being a boy's club was "quite dated" and noted that several leading GM divisions are led by women, as are about 25 percent of the company's plants.

Barra "was picked for her talent, not her gender," Akerson told reporters on a conference call.

"She grew up in the company, worked on the factory floor, managed plants and then managed the largest and most complex part of our business and that's global product development and global supply chain management."

Barra, along with a small group of other GM executives, had been fingered in recent months as possible future CEOs. While her appointment was not a surprise, analysts said the timing came earlier than anticipated.

Akerson had planned to retire in mid-to-late 2014, but accelerated the time frame because his wife is at an advanced stage of cancer.

Barra joins a growing list of prominent female chief executives across a wide swath of US sectors.

Others include IBM's Virginia Rometty, Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard, Patricia Woertz at Archer Daniels Midland, Ellen Kullman at DuPont and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer.

But Barra's appointment also stood out from other recent GM leaders for another reason, according to Barclays: her background as an engineer.

"We see the announcement as a positive, as it marks the first time in a very long time that GM is being run by an engineer, Mary Barra," Barclays said.

"We believe the focus on effective product development and engineering processes will become more prevalent within GM with Barra's promotion, and will be part of the company's evolution and ongoing improvement."

Akerson came to GM after working on buyouts for investment firm the Carlyle Group and followed other financial specialists to the top spot. Under his watch, GM streamlined its car portfolio and offered more new models.

Akerson said he was proud of GM's progress so far, but more was needed.

"We have to continue to execute and put the customer central to everything we do," Akerson said. "We've reformed GM. As far as we've come, we've got to go that far again."

Analysts said major challenges include improving GM's performance in Europe given the weak economy in the region and keeping a high profile in China, an important growth market.

Analysts are also keen to see the company make significant payoffs to shareholders through a dividend and a share repurchase program.

Tuesday's announcement unveiled a series of other significant executive changes, including news that board member Theodore Solso would succeed Akerson as chairman -- splitting the CEO and chairman roles.

Dan Ammann, currently executive vice president and chief financial officer, will become president and assume responsiblity for regional operations around the world. The global Chevrolet and Cadillac brands will report to him. A replacement as CFO will be named later.

GM shares shed 1.2 percent in an overall lower market. were off 0.9 percent in mid-day trade. Shares have risen more than 60 percent over the last 12 months.

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