G.M. Board Picks a Woman to Be Chief Executive
By BILL VLASIC
DETROIT — Her father was a die maker for 39 years, one of the legions of employees who performed the gritty tasks that made General Motors the nation’s largest and most powerful auto company.
And ever since she was a child, Mary T. Barra aspired to join the family business and make her mark in the rugged, automobile industry. At 18, she did just that, entering a G.M. technical school to become an engineer.
On Tuesday, Ms. Barra, 51, completed a remarkable personal odyssey when she was named as the next chief executive of G.M. — and the first woman to ascend to the top job at a major auto company.
While she is the consummate insider who has spent 33 years with G.M., Ms. Barra is now charged with driving change at the automaker, which, just four years ago, went bankrupt and needed a $49.5 billion government bailout to survive.
G.M.’s board chose her unanimously from a handful of internal candidates to succeed Daniel F. Akerson, who was a fledgling outside director of the company with no automotive experience when he took the reins of G.M. in 2010.
But the selection of Ms. Barra (pronounced BAHR-ra) is a milestone in an industry long dominated by men, and a signal that the stodgy corporate culture at G.M. has changed forever.
“This is truly the next chapter in G.M.’s recovery and turnaround history,” Ms. Barra told employees at a town-hall style meeting Tuesday at company headquarters in Detroit. “And I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Ms. Barra brings extensive experience to her new position. She has been a rank-and-file engineer, a plant manager, the head of corporate human resources and, since 2011, the senior executive overseeing all of G.M.’s global product development.
And she has, in the parlance of the Motor City, gasoline running through her veins. She and her husband, Tony, a management consultant whom she met at G.M.’s technical school, have owned several Chevrolet Camaros. And Ms. Barra can often be found on the company’s test track putting vehicles through their paces at high speeds.
Mr. Akerson, who is retiring earlier than expected from G.M. because of his wife’s health problems, insisted that Ms. Barra was not chosen to make a statement about the need for diversity in the ultracompetitive auto industry.
She beat out some prominent candidates for the job, including Mark Reuss, the head of G.M.’s North American operations and the son of a former president of the company.
“Mary was picked for her talent, not her gender,” Mr. Akerson said in a conference call with reporters.
But on a personal note, he said, promoting Ms. Barra to become chief executive was an emotional moment for him. “It was almost like watching your daughter graduate from college,” he said.
He said that Ms. Barra “brought order to chaos” in G.M.’s vast product development organization, mostly by flattening its bureaucracy and cutting overlapping layers of executives. She was also in charge of reducing the number of expensive, global vehicle platforms, and bringing new models to market faster and at lower cost.
During her tenure, G.M. has introduced competitive small cars like the Chevrolet Sonic and redesigned versions of its big-selling pickup trucks. Ms. Barra has also been a champion of more fuel-efficient engines and lighter-weight vehicles.
G.M.’s announcement that Ms. Barra will take over as its chief executive in January came one day after the Treasury Department sold the last of the G.M. stock it took in exchange for the company’s government bailout.
Now G.M. can continue its comeback without the lingering, negative nickname of “Government Motors” — and under the leadership of a woman who has shattered the glass ceiling in the car business.
Ms. Barra was not available for comment on Tuesday. One of the first women to serve as a G.M. vice president, Marina Whitman, said her selection was overdue in a company that rarely breached its tenets of conformity. “One of my greatest frustrations at G.M. was we were never able to persuade top management that the world was changing rapidly and they needed to change to keep up with it,” said Ms. Whitman, a University of Michigan business professor who worked at G.M. from 1979 to 1992.
But because Ms. Barra has had such a stellar career at G.M., she now has an opportunity to accelerate its post-bankruptcy transformation.
Ms. Barra is hardly a flamboyant figure at the company. She is known inside G.M. 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., she has a soft-spoken manner that belies her intensity on the job.
In a commencement speech last summer to students at her alma mater, the G.M.-sponsored Kettering University in Flint, Mich., she summarized her inclusive management style. “Problems don’t go away when you ignore them — they get bigger,” she said. “In my experience, it is much better to get the right people together, to make a plan, and to address every challenge head on.”
One of her initiatives in the product-development job was to assign engineers to work in car dealerships to learn more about what customers want and need in their cars and trucks.
“It’s the little things,” she said in November. “It’s the person who programs the Sonic windshield wiper who says, ‘Hmm, why don’t I turn this on when the rain sensor for the windshield senses it’s raining, when the person puts it in reverse?’ ”
And while she has a low-key personality, Ms. Barra, the mother of two teenage children, is keenly competitive 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.”
Mr. Akerson lauded Ms. Barra for her management and product skills, but also said she had “an ability with people” that is critical to G.M.’s team-first approach.
She will need those talents to lead other executives who lost out on the chief executive job, including Mr. Reuss, who will take over Ms. Barra’s product development duties, and Daniel Ammann, the chief financial officer who was promoted on Tuesday to be G.M.’s president.
The G.M. board, however, did split the chairman and chief executive jobs that were both held by Mr. Akerson. The new chairman of the board will be Theodore M. Solso, a former head of Cummins, the engine manufacturer.
In the end, Ms. Barra’s biggest challenge is to continue to ensure improvements in G.M.’s product lineup. G.M. has overhauled many of its models since emerging from bankruptcy in 2009, but its American market share remains stuck at about 18 percent.
Other hurdles include fixing G.M.’s troubled European operations, and spurring more growth in China and Asia. And while G.M. has been profitable for 15 consecutive quarters, it still lags competitors like Toyota and Ford Motor in overall earnings.