General Motors plans to name Mary Barra to succeed Dan Akerson as chief executive officer, making her the first female CEO in the global automotive industry, a person familiar with the effort said.
CEO since 2010, Mr. Akerson, who turned 65 in October, plans to tell employees today that he will step down in January, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private. GM said in a statement that Mr. Akerson pulled ahead his succession plan by several months after his wife was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer.
Ms. Barra, 51, whose career started on a factory floor as an intern more than 30 years ago, has been in charge of product development and quality of all GM cars and trucks for 22 months, fostering collaboration and wringing costs out of the supply chain. The daughter of a Pontiac die maker takes the helm after the U.S. government sold its stake in GM, giving her full freedom to take on domestic and Japanese manufacturers whose price competition threatens profit.
Succession is "one of the most important risks at General Motors for an investor with a medium- to long-term horizon," Adam Jonas, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, said in an interview earlier this year. "Leadership in the auto industry -- one leader can make tens of billions of difference. We've seen that."
As the first CEO of a global automaker, Ms. Barra joins Ginni Rometty at International Business Machines Corp., Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo Inc., Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Meg Whitman and Ursula Burns of Xerox Corp. as women who have risen to run major U.S. corporations.
She beat out Mark Reuss, 50, president of GM North America, Chief Financial Officer Dan Ammann, 41, and Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, 51, all of whom were considered potential CEOs. Mr. Reuss will replace Barra as exec VP-global product development, purchasing and supply chain.
Alan Batey, currently senior VP-global Chevrolet and U.S. sales and marketing, will replace Mr. Reuss and is named exec VP and president of North America. In his current position, he has developed the Chevrolet brand's Find New Roads advertising campaign and has overseen a sweeping upgrade of retail sales and service operations at hundreds of U.S. dealerships.
Ms. Barra began with GM in 1980 as a student at General Motors Institute (since renamed Kettering University) in Flint, Michigan, and landed her first job as a plant engineer at Pontiac Motor Division, where her father worked for 39 years. There were few women and even fewer 18-year-olds.
"It was a rougher environment," she said in an interview in March. "It makes you harder."
Her big break came when GM put her in a program for high- potential workers and gave her a scholarship to get an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She became an executive assistant for then-CEO Jack Smith, a perch that gave her a window into how the company worked. She recalls visiting senior leaders at GM to talk about diversity and women's issues while she was pregnant.
Ms. Barra has played a role in GM management for a generation. Her career has include time as vice president of global manufacturing engineering, head of GM's Detroit Hamtramck Assembly plant and executive director of competitive operations engineering. Before becoming GM's first female product chief, she was the company's top human-resources executive.
Most recently she led the company's $15 billion vehicle- development operations, a high-profile role that's given her sway over the look and feel of the full line of GM cars and trucks. She was promoted to that position in early 2011, less than six months after Mr. Akerson became CEO.
Some of the new vehicles to come out under her include the Chevrolet Impala, the first U.S. sedan in at least 20 years chosen by Consumer Reports as as the best on the market, and the Cadillac CTS, picked as Motor Trend's car of the year.
Some of her other achievements aren't easy to see.
He asked her to cut costs by aligning purchasing and product development, two powerful units that had long been at odds. In one early example, GM engineers and suppliers found savings by redesigning knee air bags so that they could be used in more vehicles without having to design different dashboards for each model.
"If it's customer facing, why does it have to be?" Ms. Barra said of the conversations she's had with engineers. "And then if it's not, why can't it be common for the globe? Some components and subsystems depend on the size of the vehicle, the performance you're looking for. But if you start with questioning 'why can't I have one solution?' then you get engineering thinking completely differently."
Mr. Akerson presaged Ms. Barra's appointment earlier this year when he predicted that a woman will eventually run one of the three largest U.S.-based automakers.
"The Detroit Three are all run by non-car guys," Mr. Akerson said in September in Detroit. "Someday, there will be a Detroit Three that's run by a car gal."
He declined to identify any contenders at the time, saying only that "there are an unbelievable number of talented women in automotive, certainly at General Motors."
News of the changes come a day after the U.S. government disclosed the sale of the last of its shares in GM. Bailouts from the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations gave U.S. taxpayers a stake in the automaker while helping GM avoid liquidation. The company reorganized in a 2009 bankruptcy that helped it reduce debt, trim labor costs and sharpen its focus on only the strongest brands.
GM reached a record high yesterday, closing at $40.90, with a market valuation of $56.8 billion.
-- Bloomberg News --