Akerson reflects on his beginning, tenure and legacy at GM

He hopes Barra 'is gangbusters successful'

Dan Akerson, left, and Automotive News Editor-in-Chief Keith Crain share a laugh during their discussion that wrapped up the Automotive News World Congress. Photo credit: GLENN TRIEST

DETROIT -- General Motors' departing CEO Dan Akerson says his successor faces tougher pressure than he ever did as the first woman to lead a major automaker, but says Mary Barra is a unique leader who "knows the business from the shop floor up."

"It's gonna be tough for her," Akerson said Wednesday night, during what amounted to an exit interview on the day his retirement took effect after 40 months at the head of GM. His comments came at the Automotive News World Congress, just 30 floors or so below the executive suite that he vacated this week in GM's headquarters.

Akerson shared insights about his perceptions of GM when he arrived and his effort to transform a hidebound GM culture that "had allowed ourselves to be eclipsed by time, and our competition."

During his tenure, for example, he ordered that the 39,000-square-foot executive suite on the 39th floor of GM's Renaissance Center headquarters be renovated to fit 10 offices, instead of the cavernous four offices that he found upon his arrival.

"I had a bathroom as big as some offices I've had in my career," Akerson said during his 45-minute long discussion with Automotive News Editor-in-Chief Keith Crain, which drew several laughs and a few emotional moments.

Akerson, 65, surprised GM insiders a few months ago when he told them of his intentions to retire, about six to 12 months earlier than he had planned, to care for his wife, who has cancer. His retirement and the appointment of the 52-year-old Barra as his successor was announced last month and took effect today.

The former Navy lieutenant who made his career in telecommunications and private equity was an unconventional pick to lead GM when he joined the automaker on Sept. 1, 2010. The GM board's choice of Akerson came under the gun in the summer of 2010, soon after former CEO Ed Whitacre unexpectedly told directors that he was leaving because he didn't want to stick around after the company's IPO, in November of that year.

"When Dan put his hand up, that took care of the problem," Whitacre wrote in American Turnaround, a book released last year. "Not very elegant, I will admit. But that's how it played out."

'I love an underdog'

Akerson recalled it differently tonight, saying the board first asked him to be non-executive chairman, and then after deliberation asked him to take the CEO position too.

"I thought it was an honor to be asked, and it was a challenge to answer the call," Akerson said.

He acknowledged that he left a more lucrative job as a partner at a private equity firm to lead GM in part out of a sense of patriotic duty to help revive an American industrial icon. And, he said, because he thought "it could be fixed, and I love an underdog."

Barra was GM's human resources chief and quickly caught Akerson's attention at the time as a "competent" and "decisive" executive whose talents weren't being maximized. Within three months, he put her in charge of GM's massive $15 billion product-development enterprise, which he described as in "chaos" at the time.

"Complexity, too many platforms, too many engine families, too much freedom, too much carte blanche," Akerson said. He said the job was out of Barra's comfort zone, after a 30-year career spent mostly on the manufacturing side of GM. "What I needed was a good manager" to make tough decisions, "allocate resources and put the right people in the right jobs."

Akerson said his proudest moment as GM's CEO came in June, when the company finished atop J.D. Power's rankings for initial quality, becoming the first Detroit 3 company in nearly three decades to do so.

"That was critically important to an initiative I thought would start to burnish our brands and bring them back," he told reporters following his appearance.

Akerson acknowledged from the start of his tenure that he wasn't a car guy, and often was dismissive of a Detroit culture that he seemed to view as insular. Soon after his arrival, he began encouraging GM executives to join outside corporate boards for a broader perspective on the business world, a move that was discouraged or even prohibited in the old GM.

Labor relations

During his talk tonight, he described efforts to engage with the company's rank-and-file, both salaried and union. He said he would take "the people's elevators" at GM headquarters, "instead of the express elevators" reserved for executives.

He described his efforts to warm relations with the UAW, describing a visit to the union's Solidarity House headquarters in Detroit soon after his arrival and ahead of contract negotiations in 2011 with a message for UAW president Bob King: "We need to be friends."

Akerson said he invited King and other union leaders to regularly visit GM board meetings to debrief directors.

"We got some unadulterated perspectives from the shop floor," he said. King was skeptical of the offer to accept a profit-sharing plan in exchange for ceding wage increases, so Akerson agreed to have salaried employees forgo their raises, too.

Akerson's legacy

Akerson said he thinks Barra will do "extraordinarily well," but that she'll face more scrutiny than he did during his tenure.

"If I made the same mistakes she made, I don't think it'd get the same attention," he said. "I just think she's going to be analyzed."

He also said that Tim Solso, the former CEO of diesel engine maker Cummins Inc. who is now GM's non-executive chairman, was in town this week meeting with GM's top executives.

"I would say he's a lot more qualified than I am," Akerson said.

Asked about how his legacy would be viewed, Akerson said he tried to be a coach and mentor who brought accountability to a culture that lacked it for decades.

"I want to look back at this company in 2020, 2025 and 2030, when I'm really old, and say I was part of that success," he told reporters. "I hope Mary is gangbusters successful. And my name fades to black."

You can reach Mike Colias at autonews@crain.com

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