Corporate succession announcements often have no impact much beyond the sphere of any company's influence, but a surprise announcement by General Motors today should rightly be called a bit of history: As of January, one of the world's largest automakers will be led by Mary Barra, a 51-year-old executive who will become the first woman chief executive of a major carbuilder.
GM said in a statement that the move was made several months sooner than expected due to current chief executive Dan Akerson having to step down due to his wife's cancer diagnosis. Akerson had been expected to leave sometime after the U.S. government sold the last shares of GM it held after the 2009 bailout — which it did on Monday, recording a $10 billion loss on the company's rescue.
Barra has long been considered one of a handful of executives in the running for the CEO post after Akerson's departure. (Most of her competitors for the job will get promotions of some sort, with the exception of the chairman of GM Europe, who's leaving that thankless job in April.) Since February 2011, Barra has overseen GM global vehicle development, and in the past few years the automaker has released a string of strong vehicles, from the new Corvette Stingray to the Cadillac ATS and CTS sedans.
“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 a statement today. “I’m honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed.”
Women have long been rare in corporate boardrooms — according to Forbes, of the 500 largest companies in the United States, 21 had a female CEO as of this September. That gender gap has long been a chasm in the auto industry, where female executives have been rare, even as women account for more than half of all new vehicles sold. And while more women hold titles in American automakers and the regional arms of foreign automakers, they hold few positions at the top of conglomerates like Toyota or Volkswagen — and none that have a direct line of succession to CEO.
Detroit has never been a welcoming place to executives from outside the industry, and Barra has the resume of a GM lifer. Her father was a GM die maker for 39 years; her first car was a Chevy, and Barra drove it to class at the General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich., (now Kettering), the automaker's feeder school for talent where she got her degree in electrical engineering. Starting as an 18-year-old co-op student in 1980, Barra rose through the engineering and production ranks, from managing the sprawling Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant to overseeing corporate-wide human relations — which some companies have turned into a corporate ghetto for women executives. But Barra succeeded in streamlining GM's overwhelming bureaucracy, a skill that has served her well.
And while Barra hasn't shied from publicity, she has downplayed her groundbreaking status in the past when she was the first woman to oversee development at a major automaker: "I don’t know that I’m a ‘car gal,’ but I know I love cars and trucks,” Barra told a Detroit TV station last year.
“There’s pressure in every job. I have the best job at GM, because I lead a talented, dedicated team around the globe who shares a common vision: to design, build and sell great vehicles."
During her tenure, Barra has avoided the kind of pronouncements that her predecessor as GM development chief, famed "car guy" Bob Lutz, was infamous for; where his motto was "often wrong, never in doubt," Barra has stressed working together, telling Fortune last year: "The day they say 'I'm doing it because Mary told me to do it,' is the day I lose." Barra's appointment makes one kind of history; showing that a car gal can drive GM to a new era would be another, bigger step.