For the first time, a woman will lead one of the Detroit Three as General Motors names Mary Barra to the top post today. Currently senior vice president of global operations, she succeeds outgoing CEO Dan Akerson, who announced his retirement this morning.
Barra has been with GM since 1980, starting her career there as a co-op student at Pontiac. After graduating from Kettering University with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, she moved up the ranks in several engineering and managerial positions, including executive director of competitive operations engineering; plant manager of GM's Hamtramck Assembly plant (home of the Volt); and vice president of global manufacturing engineering. Before being named as SVP of global operations, Barra was vice president of global human resources.
Akerson's departure, effective January 15, comes on the heels of the U.S. Treasury selling off its final shares in GM, ending government ownership. The former communications executive was named to the top post at GM after receiving millions in government loans following bankruptcy in 2009.
Barra's appointment comes to a surprise to industry watchers; many had expected — or assumed — that current North American Vice President Mark Reuss, who has spearheaded all of GM's top launches in recent years, would ascend to the CEO's chair. Instead, Reuss assumes Barra's now-former role as vice president of global product development, purchasing and supply chain.
Alan Batey, currently president of Chevrolet sales and marketing, replaces Reuss as North American president.
What Barra's appointment means is that not only is she the first woman to lead a U.S. automaker, but the only woman leading a car company anywhere in the world. While GM leads Ford and Chrysler with female representation at the top, it's by no means equal with four women on a 14-member board and 25% of corporate officers being female.
As Micki Maynard points out, more than half of car buyers are women, so it's long overdue that a woman should be leading a car company. But Maynard also notes that Barra has a lack of operations experience and will need a strong support team — predictably in the form of Reuss and co. — to keep GM moving forward.
UPDATE, 11:10 a.m.: During a conference call with reporters, retiring CEO Akerson announced that his wife is battling cancer. "My wife and my family rank No. 1," he says, noting that he did not plan to leave GM in this manner, but that Barra has "breadth and depth" of experience and a "vision of where she wants to take this company," including reducing the number of global platforms to "five or less."