Akerson cleared the path; Barra must forge ahead

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Next month Mary Barra becomes CEO of General Motors, succeeding Dan Akerson. The transition has attracted a lot of attention, much of it because Barra is the first woman to head a global automaker.

That attention is appropriate; it's a watershed event for GM and the auto industry.

But there's more to her ascension than gender equality. GM employees support Barra's selection.

She is second-generation GM, having started as a co-op student and working her way up through manufacturing, engineering and product development. Workers know that Barra is one of them and that a car person is running GM again.

The U.S. government has sold the last shares of stock it acquired during GM's 2009 bankruptcy, freeing Barra of the Government Motors label.

Akerson is retiring early because of his wife's health, but he has cleared several potential stumbling blocks from Barra's path.

In a flurry, GM pulled the plug on Chevrolet in Europe; said it would end Holden production in Australia; and sold minority stakes in PSA Peugeot Citroen and in Ally Financial, its former captive finance arm.

Barra has plenty of challenges of her own, but the slate is cleaner.

Just five years ago the old GM had to plead for federal assistance. It went into bankruptcy and emerged owned by governments and a union trust, with CEOs from outside the auto industry selected for their financial acumen.

Barra and her team of experienced auto executives now take on an additional symbolic task: showing the old GM is truly gone and the new GM can stand on its own.

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