New generation must maintain the momentum

Jason Stein is publisher and editor of Automotive News
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DETROIT -- Her handlers warned that she wouldn't stick around long at the annual General Motors holiday party. The first female automaker CEO in the history of the planet may have been fresh off a historic announcement, but Mary Barra was fighting a terrible cold.

"There's no way Mary misses this, though," a General Motors PR person said last week. "This is her time."

In the arctic chill of December in Detroit, GM's leadership move was a moment frozen in time.

With one sweeping announcement the automaker went from conservative to cutting edge, from out of touch to an out-of-the-box decision, from old Detroit to (really, really) new GM.

Even the competition took note.

"Wasn't that pretty neat?" Ford CEO Alan Mulally said last week. Mulally even called to congratulate her.

GM took a shovel to its stodgy history -- a defining moment for a company long considered "too GM" to make such an eye-popping move.

But it was just one of a number of actions last week rich with symbolism -- in an industry positioned for transition.

In a period of about 10 days, GM halted an equity partnership with Peugeot in France, ended a relationship with its former financial institution, pulled Chevrolet out of Europe, saw its ties with the U.S. Treasury cut -- oh, and made a woman its CEO.

It is also the beginning of an enormous transition; a transformation that began with Barra but will trickle across an industry that has a track record for recovery, but now needs leaders who can maintain the momentum.

And the industry is all about momentum.

Five years ago last week, on Dec. 11, 2008, the U.S. Senate rejected aid to GM and Chrysler. A day later the Bush administration said it was preparing to offer help to GM and Chrysler.

Five years later, that period seems like the Dark Ages.

On the horizon is potentially the biggest challenge for the new group of leaders.

Annual sales next year are expected to hit prebankruptcy levels. Balance sheets are clean. Product is better than ever.

In other words: There are no excuses.

Three Detroit CEOs have been celebrated for their ability to lead their companies out of the abyss. One CEO stepped away last week.

It is now up to the next generation of talent -- those groomed during the dark days -- to take that momentum further.

Dan Akerson took CEO Ed Whitacre's game plan and moved GM further, positioning the company for greater success. His efforts enabled GM to make the Barra move possible.

Mulally, who continues to deflect rumors that he will join Microsoft, has Ford registering record profits and big gains in market share. An experienced Mark Fields waits in the wings with the chance to build on Ford's success.

And, after 44 months of year-over-year monthly U.S. growth for Chrysler, Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne is launching a fresh crop of vehicles that can compete with any automaker in its class. He has an executive team that is experienced, challenged and successful.

In other words, the parts are in place for succession.

The real challenge for the new crop of leaders: Sustain the success of those who saved these iconic companies and make the future better.

Times will be tougher. This is a cyclical business. There will be ups and downs; there will be unforeseen challenges.

The Akersons of the world have paved the path. It's now time to see how fast these companies can really run.

You can reach Jason Stein at jstein@crain.com. -- Follow Jason on Twitter

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