Akerson: Hectic days, proud moments
Retired CEO shares memories of GM under his watch
DETROIT -- Newly retired General Motors CEO Dan Akerson had been on an informal farewell tour before his departure last week, highlighting the strides GM made under his watch.
But during a fireside chat-style appearance at the Automotive News World Congress on the first day of his retirement last week, Akerson filled in some of the blanks.
He talked about how he discussed the job offer in mid-2010 with his wife before accepting out of a sense of patriotic duty, and because he thought "it could be fixed, and I love an underdog."
He got early affirmation of his decision after GM's November 2010 stock offering, when a tearful employee approached him. "Six months ago, I not only thought I was going to lose my job, I was going to lose my home," Akerson recalled the man saying.
"I knew I made the right decision," Akerson said. "But I also knew we had a helluva lot of work to do."
He recalled the hectic schedule and 14-hour, sleep-deprived days he and his executive team worked during his first year. He said he had to ask his assistant to be sure to build in time for bathroom breaks.
"The first year, it was like plebe year at Annapolis," the former U.S. Navy officer said during his 45-minute chat with Automotive News Editor-in-Chief Keith Crain, which drew several laughs and included a few emotional moments.
The biggest surprise that greeted Akerson was how much GM's hidebound culture "had allowed ourselves to be eclipsed by time, and our competition." He sought to transform the culture in ways big and small.
For example, Akerson 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," he quipped.
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.
Akerson, 65, surprised GM insiders late last year when he announced his intention to retire to care for his wife, who has cancer. Mary Barra, 52, took over as CEO last week.
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 being in "chaos" at the time.
"Complexity, too many platforms, too many engine families, too much freedom, too much carte blanche," Akerson said. Barra had spent her more than 30-year career mostly on the manufacturing side of GM, and this job would be out of her comfort zone.
"What I needed was a good manager" to make tough decisions, "allocate resources and put the right people in the right jobs," he said. "Mary was a very decisive personality."
Akerson said his proudest moment as GM's CEO came in June, when the company finished atop J.D. Power and Associates' rankings for initial quality, becoming the first Detroit 3 company in nearly three decades to do so.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.