DETROIT -- General Motors announced Tuesday that its chief executive, Daniel F. Akerson, would retire next month and be succeeded by Mary T. Barra, who would become the first woman to lead a major auto company.
The elevation of Barra, 51, to the chief executive post is the latest dramatic change at the top of General Motors since its bailout by the federal government in 2009.
GM, the nation’s largest automaker, said Akerson, 65, would step down as chief executive and chairman on Jan. 15. His planned retirement was hastened, the company said, by his wife’s recent cancer diagnosis.
Barra has worked for GM for 33 years and was most recently the executive vice president of global product development. She is considered a critical player in the overhaul of the company’s vehicle lineups around the world.
The GM board approved Barra’s selection and named her a director of the company.
“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 said in the company statement. “I’m honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed.”
Barra, who is married and the mother of two children, joined GM in 1980 as a co-op student in the company’s Pontiac division. An electrical engineer by training, she worked in a variety of engineering posts and managed an assembly plant, among other jobs, before being named head of the company’s human resources department in 2009.
After being promoted by Akerson to lead GM’s global product development in 2011, Barra set out to streamline the company’s historically bureaucratic vehicle development process. She has been an advocate of reducing the number of global vehicle platforms that GM uses around the world, an approach that saves money and reduces complexity among its product lines.
“GM is in more than capable hands, as we’ve seen some of the best products released under Mary Barra, who has helped oversee the development of their vehicles on a global scale,” said Jared Rowe, president of the automobile research firm Kelley Blue Book.
The announcement of Akerson’s retirement came a day after the Treasury Department said it had sold the last of the GM stock that taxpayers received in exchange for the government’s $49.5 billion bailout of the company.
Akerson was among the new directors that the government installed after the bailout. He became chief executive in 2010 and led the automaker through its initial public stock offering and subsequent turnaround.
“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,” Akerson said.
GM said Akerson’s successor as chairman of the board would be Theodore M. Solso, the former chairman and chief executive of Cummins, the engine manufacturer.
Barra was not immediately made available by GM for comment.
The choice of Barra as the next chief executive was not totally unexpected in Detroit, where she had been considered among a handful of internal candidates for the job.
Still, the selection of a woman to lead the nation’s biggest auto company is sure to reverberate throughout the corporate world as a milestone for both GM and the industry.
“I never thought I’d see the day that a woman would head a car company — much less the biggest car company in America,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with the auto research site Edmunds.com.
“But Mary Barra’s elevation to CEO of General Motors is not just about filling a female quota,” said Krebs. “Mary is an extremely competent automotive executive who has proven herself repeatedly.”
The company’s board met over the weekend to vote on Akerson’s replacement. He told reporters that there had been brief consideration of going outside for a new chief executive, but the directors decided to focus on internal candidates and unanimously chose Barra.
“Mary was picked for her talent, not her gender,” Akerson said.
He described Barra as highly experienced in management and product skills, but also as having “an ability with people.” He said she “brought order to chaos” in the company’s vast product development organization, and drove change in how GM conceived new vehicles and brought them to market efficiently and at a lower cost.
“This is an executive who has a vision of where she wants to take the organization,” Akerson said.
On a personal note, he said, promoting Barra to the top job was an emotional moment for him. “It was almost like watching your daughter graduate from college,” he said.
Barra is known inside GM as a consensus builder who calls her staff together on a moment’s notice to brainstorm on pressing issues. An early riser who is often in her office by 6 a.m., Barra has a soft-spoken manner that belies her intensity on the job. “Problems don’t solve themselves,” she is fond of saying, according to a person who works closely with her but was not authorized to comment publicly. “They don’t go away — they just get bigger.”
She grew up in a GM family. Her father was a die-maker for the company for 39 years, and she is deeply attached to cars, routinely test-driving new models at GM’s proving grounds in the Detroit suburb of Milford. She and her husband, Tony, a management consultant, have owned a number of Chevrolet Camaro muscle cars over the years. Currently, Barra drives a Cadillac CTS sedan — one of several important new models developed during her tenure as head of global product development.
One of her initiatives has been to assign engineers to work in dealerships to learn more about what customers want and need in their cars and trucks. And Barra has a competitive streak, particularly when it comes to beating rival automakers. “We’re not developing models to participate in a segment,” she told members of her team at a recent meeting. “We’re developing models to win in a segment.”
The decision to split the chief executive and chairman roles was part of an overall effort to balance and spread responsibilities among senior leaders of the company, Akerson said.
“We’ve tried to establish a culture here as a team rather than personalities,” he said.
The company also said that its chief financial officer, Dan Ammann, would become president of GM and assume responsibility for regional operations and global brand organizations.
Ammann, 41, will retain the CFO job until a successor is named.
Other changes include the move of Mark Reuss, who had been chief of GM’s North American operations, to Barra’s job as head of product development. Reuss had also been considered a candidate for the chief executive position.
GM also announced that Stephen J. Girsky, who is a vice chairman of the company, would move to a senior advisory role until leaving the company in April. He will remain on the GM board.