GM's new CFO embodies change

Dhivya Suryadevara

The auto industry C-suite remains a clubby, still mostly white, man's world. On Wednesday, June 13, America's largest automaker, General Motors, delivered a thundering knock on that door.

Four years after naming Mary Barra as CEO, GM has doubled down with its appointment of 39-year-old Dhivya Suryadevara (DIV'-ee-yah sur-yah-DEV'-rah) as CFO. The move will make GM the only automaker — and one of just two Fortune 500 companies — with women as CEO and CFO.

Suryadevara, who was not made available for comment, has been in the thick of change at GM, helping to orchestrate deals intended to propel it from automaker to transportation services provider. That transition is crucial as the industry prepares for such historic business challenges as the rise of autonomous vehicle fleets, ride-hailing services and monthly vehicle subscription programs.

Suryadevara's work experience is relevant to GM's goals over the next 20 years, Morningstar Research auto analyst David Whiston told Automotive News.

"It's a very competitive industry. There's a lot of disruption. GM needs to stay at the forefront of that," Whiston said.

Suryadevara was involved in last year's sale of Opel to PSA Group, GM's acquisition of Cruise Automation, the automaker's $500 million bet on ride-hailing company Lyft and in last month's $2.25 billion investment in GM's autonomous vehicle business by Japan's SoftBank.

GM is well-positioned for the future, Suryadevara told Crain's Detroit Business last year.

"There's certainly uncertainty on how [autonomous vehicles, electrification and ride-sharing] will play out, but we think it's going great," she said. Automakers "are going to be disrupted; we don't want to be the one that's disrupted. We want to be the disrupter, but with a strong balance sheet."

Thick of it

Suryadevara has been involved in repositioning GM as it transitions from basic auto production, corporate governance adviser Joel Koblentz told Automotive News. "Everything she's done is to position this company to be more valuable," he said.

Suryadevara will replace Chuck Stevens, 58, as CFO on Sept. 1. Stevens will remain with GM as an adviser until retiring March 1. Bank of America Merrill Lynch research analyst John Murphy described the transition as a "natural progression" rather than a "shock to the system."

Dhivya Suryadevara
  • Age: 39
  • Born: Chennai, India
  • In the news: Named General Motors' CFO
  • Background: The 13-year GM veteran has held several positions at GM, including treasurer and vice president of corporate finance
  • Big break: Helping execute GM's offloading of $29 billion in pension liability in 2012
  • Education: MBA, Harvard Business School

"Dhivya is a very intelligent, hardworking person. She knows what she's talking about left, right and center," Murphy told Automotive News. "Investors might not know her quite as well, so there might be some slight reservation, and she might need to get a little bit more public in her position."

Suryadevara, a native of India, started at GM at 25 and rose to vice president of corporate finance.

In 2012, she was part of a small team that executed a transaction to slash about $29 billion from GM's pension burden by shifting some salaried retirees to a group annuity handled by Prudential Financial Inc.

"Nothing on that scale had been done before," Suryadevara told Automotive News in 2016. "We didn't really have a road map for how to structure and execute a deal like that."

She was GM's treasurer from 2015 to 2017 and was responsible for the management of business and investment activities of GM's $85 billion pension operations as CEO and chief investment officer for GM Asset Management from 2013 to 2017.

The CFO has become a strategic partner to the CEO, Koblentz said.

"In a world of disruption and transformation, to succeed now, the best CFOs possess a deep understanding of the complexities of finance and its integration into all of the various aspects of aligning and delivering value to shareholders," he said.

Suryadevara might be destined for even higher office, he suggested. "Many times, boards use the CFO role as a CEO grooming opportunity," Koblentz said.

Youth

Suryadevara is part of a wave of young C-suite executives. She was born the year after Stevens began his GM career. GM President Dan Ammann was appointed CFO at 38 in 2011.

Some corporations are adopting the idea that young leaders, unencumbered by traditional ways of doing business, can bring fresh perspectives to an industry grappling with new technologies, business models and competitors.

"Some companies may look to seed their leadership with individuals who are more agile at dealing with these disruptions," Koblentz said.

Suryadevara's ascent within GM is indicative of Barra's push to ensure that the company's C-suite isn't stocked with GM lifers. Barra wants to keep the company fresh and nimble, and not fall into the bad habits of old GM, Whiston said. Suryadevara is "young enough to not be tied to the old GM of the '80s or '90s," he said. "That probably is quite interesting to Mary."

Whiston shrugs off the suggestion that at 39, Suryadevara might lack the gravitas needed to help run a company as large and complex as GM.

Given her tenure and experience at GM, "I'm not too worried about her age," Whiston said.

"If Mary didn't think she was ready, I don't think she'd get the promotion."

Diversity at the top

Suryadevara was named an Automotive News Rising Star in 2016 and featured as a Crain's Detroit Business 40 Under 40 honoree last year.

While working for a large automobile company was not her goal growing up, "what I did know is that I liked anything challenging and complicated," Suryadevara told Real Simple magazine in 2016.

Born in Chennai, India, Suryadevara arrived in the United States at age 22 seeking a ticket into the business world — an MBA from Harvard Business School.

"It was overwhelming," she said. "I was very far from home, and there was definitely culture shock."

After a brief stint in investment banking, Suryadevara joined GM.

"It struck me right away that there was no shortage of interesting things to do there," she said. "I saw that I was only limited by how much effort and time I wanted to put in, which is what made me want to work harder."

The time and effort paid off. Suryadevara will be one of four women among GM's 17 corporate officers. When Suryadevara succeeds Stevens, GM's ranks will get closer to mirroring the share of women in senior jobs among S&P 500 companies, which is 27 percent, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit that tracks women in leadership positions. GM's board is tied with several other companies as the most diverse among S&P 500 companies, with half of its directors being women.

Suryadevara's brisk rise, coupled with that of Barra's, reflects GM's commitment to groom women for the highest leadership roles, noted Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

"The auto industry, in particular, struggles to attract smart, talented women, keep them and cultivate them so they feel like they can have a really successful career," Lindland said.

GM is proving to the auto industry that winning the war for top talent means not allowing half that talent — the female half — to sit on the sidelines, noted Terry Barclay, CEO of Inforum, formerly known as the Women's Economic Club.

"They are reaping the benefit of a sustained and thoughtful commitment to inclusivity as a core talent management value," Barclay said.

Diversity in the leadership ranks is critical, especially for a global company, Lindland said.

She said, "For somebody to talk, even anecdotally, about a region, or a country, or experience that they had, the value of those kinds of perspectives really can't be underestimated."

Michael Wayland contributed to this report.

You can reach Urvaksh Karkaria at ukarkaria@crain.com -- Follow Urvaksh on Twitter: @urvaksh

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