Barra has played a role in GM management for a generation. Her career has included time as vice president of global manufacturing engineering, head of GM’s Detroit Hamtramck Assembly plant and executive director of competitive operations engineering. Before becoming GM’s first female product chief, she was the company’s top human-resources executive.
Most recently she led the company’s $15 billion vehicle-development operations, a high-profile role that’s given her sway over the look and feel of the full line of GM cars and trucks. She was promoted to that position in early 2011, less than six months after Akerson became CEO.
Some of the new vehicles to come out under her include the Chevrolet Impala, the first U.S. sedan in at least 20 years chosen by Consumer Reports as as the best on the market, and the Cadillac CTS, picked as Motor Trend’s car of the year.
Some of her other achievements aren’t easy to see.
He asked her to cut costs by aligning purchasing and product development, two powerful units that had long been at odds. In one early example, GM engineers and suppliers found savings by redesigning knee air bags so that they could be used in more vehicles without having to design different dashboards for each model.
“If it’s customer facing, why does it have to be?” Barra said of the conversations she’s had with engineers. “And then if it’s not, why can’t it be common for the globe? Some components and subsystems depend on the size of the vehicle, the performance you’re looking for. But if you start with questioning ‘why can’t I have one solution?’ then you get engineering thinking completely differently."
Akerson presaged Barra’s appointment earlier this year when he predicted that a woman will eventually run one of the three largest U.S.-based automakers.
“The Detroit Three are all run by non-car guys,” Akerson said in September in Detroit. “Someday, there will be a Detroit Three that’s run by a car gal.”
He declined to identify any contenders at the time, saying only that “there are an unbelievable number of talented women in automotive, certainly at General Motors.”
News of the changes come a day after the U.S. government disclosed the sale of the last of its shares in GM. Bailouts from the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations gave U.S. taxpayers a stake in the automaker while helping GM avoid liquidation. The company reorganized in a 2009 bankruptcy that helped it reduce debt, trim labor costs and sharpen its focus on only the strongest brands.
Mike Colias and Bloomberg contributed to this report.