SOUTHFIELD, Mich. - General Motors Tuesday named Mary Barra, whose career began on the factory floor, to succeed Dan Akerson as chief executive officer, making her the first female CEO in the global automotive industry.
Akerson, CEO since 2010, turned 65 in October, and his wife was recently diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer, GM said in a statement. Akerson will retire Jan. 15.
Since February 2011, Barra, 51, has held what many say is the most important job at GM - senior vice president for global product development. Barra, who joined GM in 1980, is currently in charge of design, engineering and quality for all of GM's vehicles across the globe and has shepherded most of the company's recent new vehicle introductions.
Under her command, GM rolled out brawny new full-size pickup trucks, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, and the Chevrolet Impala full-size car, which earned the highest score for a sedan in testing by Consumer Reports magazine. She also led development of the new Chevrolet Corvette and several new Cadillac models.
The daughter of a Pontiac die maker takes the helm after the U.S. government sold its last stake in GM on Monday, giving her full freedom to take on domestic and Japanese manufacturers whose price competition threatens profit.
"Given her role in product development, it makes a lot of sense," David Whiston, an analyst with Morningstar Inc., said Tuesday. "She can wear a lot of hats now and as the chief decision maker in the company, she can be well informed enough to make decisions on product development and engineering but also on the budget side of things, keeping that balance between what engineers want and what marketing people want."
As the first female CEO of a global automaker, Barra joins Ginni Rometty at IBM 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; new GM president Dan Ammann, 41; and Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, 51, all of whom were considered potential CEOs.
Barra began with GM in 1980 as a student at General Motors Institute (since renamed Kettering University) in Flint, Mich., 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.
Barra has played a role in GM management for a generation. Her career has included 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.