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GM’s Akerson: Female CEO “inevitable” at Big Three automaker

Mary Barra, GM’s senior vice president of global product development, could be on the short list of those with a shot at replacing CEO Dan Akerson, who turns 65 next month.
Mary Barra, GM’s senior vice president of global product development, could be on the short list of those with a shot at replacing CEO Dan Akerson, who turns 65 next month.

While he’s in no rush to retire, General Motors Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson dropped a big hint about who might eventually replace him, telling his audience at an automotive conference in Detroit on Wednesday it’s “inevitable” that a “car gal” will eventually run one of the Motor City’s Big Three automakers.

GM has already come a long way from the days when its management team was dominated by “car guys” in gray flannel suits. It currently has four women on its board of directors, and six women rank among its corporate officers. And there already has been buzz that Mary Barra, the maker’s senior vice president of global product development, could be on the short list of those with a shot at replacing Akerson, who turns 65 next month.

“You’ll have more women in board rooms and more women in senior management 10 years from now, at least I hope so,” Akerson said during a speech to the 2013 Michigan Automotive Summit.

Women slowly have been gaining a foothold in the auto industry over the past three decades, but for the large part, most have been assigned to traditionally “female” roles in senior management, such as human resources, public relations or environmental affairs. According to Catalyst.org, women held 24 percent of the jobs in the motor vehicles and motor vehicles equipment manufacturing industry in 2012.

Barra, 51, is on a short list of those who have broken through the industry’s glass ceiling, overseeing GM’s global product development process. Forbes Magazine named Barra the 35th most powerful woman in the world this year, up from No. 41 in 2012.

General Motors CEO Dan Akerson predicts more women will rise in the auto industry, inevitably taking the top job at a Big Three automaker.
General Motors CEO Dan Akerson predicts more women will rise in the auto industry, inevitably taking the top job at a Big Three automaker. REBECCA COOK

Akerson has often irked industry traditionalists and has shown a propensity for ignoring industry rules and traditions, perhaps a reflection of the fact that he came from outside the automotive world. The GM chairman and chief executive worked in the telecommunications and financial industries before moving to Detroit in the wake of GM’s 2009 bankruptcy.

Under Akerson, a number of veteran executives have been shifted or ousted as he has pushed to rebuild a company that was once the world’s largest industrial concern but collapsed under the weight of billions of dollars in debt – and the impact of increasingly powerful competitors such as Toyota and Volkswagen.

The Motor City industry has seen a broader shift away from the tradition of sticking with industry insiders, usually men who had risen in the ranks of that particular company, for leadership roles. Indeed, all three of the current CEOs -- Akerson, former Boeing executive-turned-Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally and one-time GE star and now Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne -- began their climbs up the executive ladder outside the auto industry.

While Akerson’s comments may shine a spotlight on Barra, she is far from a shoe-in as the next CEO. Among her chief rivals is Mark Reuss, currently the head of GM’s North American operations. Reuss was, in fact, the choice when Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre stepped down in 2010. But the board opted to replace the lanky Texan with one of its own members, Akerson.