DETROIT -- In a 24-hour span this week, General Motors slammed the lid on a five-year chapter that will forever be defined by bankruptcy, bailout and caretaker management.
Now Mary Barra (BAR'-ruh), the first woman to lead a global automaker, inherits a company untethered from government ownership, with a rock-solid balance sheet, a clearer European strategy and a vehicle-development enterprise that's cranking out plenty of hits.
"This is a great company again," retiring GM CEO Dan Akerson told Barra and her new executive team in a ceremonial passing of the baton last week before hundreds of employees.
"Don't lose it."
For Barra, the 51-year-old engineer and outgoing product chief, the task must go beyond simply not being the Old GM. Akerson spent his three-plus-year tenure trying to disentangle GM's notorious bureaucracy and revitalize its worn brands. Barra will need to pick up those unfinished tasks and also define a vision for the next era, one in which GM can harness its size and engineering prowess to outgun more profitable rivals such as Volkswagen, Toyota and Ford.
"She'll need to get people in the organization behind a clear vision for the future," said Maryann Keller, a longtime automotive analyst and author of two books on GM. "What does the new GM stand for?"
The hard slog and tough decisions made under Akerson, and the renaissance in GM's vehicle development that predated him, have set the stage for Barra to think big.
North American profits are stout as GM commands firm pricing across a rejuvenated vehicle lineup. It is emerging as a leader in vehicle quality -- unthinkable even just a few years ago -- with a renewed rigor in product launches that has helped GM sidestep problems that have snared many rivals' rollouts.
Opel, the money-losing European business whose fate was in doubt just 18 months ago, is showing a pulse, on pace to break even within two years, analysts say. There have been recent moves to shore up weakening results in Southeast Asia while revamping the management team to wring more growth and profit out of China.
But Akerson's exit on Jan. 15 leaves a relatively inexperienced executive suite and redrawn management structure that will test Barra's team early on.
In an industry that tends to reward managerial stability because of its long product cycles, most of GM's top executives are yet again taking up new jobs. Barra herself is GM's fifth CEO in five years; GM must find a new CFO -- its third in three years -- when current finance chief Dan Ammann, 41, assumes his operations-heavy role of GM president, a revived post. Marketing chiefs for GM's two most important brands, Chevrolet and Cadillac, are new faces.