Ever since she was a child, Mary T. Barra aspired to join the family business and make her mark in the rugged, automobile industry. At 18, she did just that, entering a G.M. technical school to become an engineer.
Ms. Barra, 51, completed a remarkable personal odyssey when she was named as the next chief executive of G.M. — and the first woman to ascend to the top job at a major auto company.
While she is the consummate insider who has spent 33 years with G.M., Ms. Barra is now charged with driving change at the automaker, which, just four years ago, went bankrupt and needed a $49.5 billion government bailout to survive.
G.M.’s board chose her unanimously from a handful of internal candidates to succeed Daniel F. Akerson, who was a fledgling outside director of the company with no automotive experience when he took the reins of G.M. in 2010.
But the selection of Ms. Barra (pronounced BAHR-ra) is a milestone in an industry long dominated by men, and a signal that the stodgy corporate culture at G.M. has changed forever.
“This is truly the next chapter in G.M.’s recovery and turnaround history,” Ms. Barra told employees at a town-hall style meeting Tuesday at company headquarters in Detroit. “And I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Ms. Barra brings extensive experience to her new position. She has been a rank-and-file engineer, a plant manager, the head of corporate human resources and, since 2011, the senior executive overseeing all of G.M.’s global product development.
And she has, in the parlance of the Motor City, gasoline running through her veins. She and her husband, Tony, a management consultant whom she met at G.M.’s technical school, have owned several Chevrolet Camaros. And Ms. Barra can often be found on the company’s test track putting vehicles through their paces at high speeds.
Mr. Akerson, who is retiring earlier than expected from G.M. because of his wife’s health problems, insisted that Ms. Barra was not chosen to make a statement about the need for diversity in the ultracompetitive auto industry.
She beat out some prominent candidates for the job, including Mark Reuss, the head of G.M.’s North American operations and the son of a former president of the company.
“Mary was picked for her talent, not her gender,” Mr. Akerson said in a conference call with reporters.
But on a personal note, he said, promoting Ms. Barra to become chief executive was an emotional moment for him. “It was almost like watching your daughter graduate from college,” he said.
He said that Ms. Barra “brought order to chaos” in G.M.’s vast product development organization, mostly by flattening its bureaucracy and cutting overlapping layers of executives. She was also in charge of reducing the number of expensive, global vehicle platforms, and bringing new models to market faster and at lower cost.
During her tenure, G.M. has introduced competitive small cars like the Chevrolet Sonic and redesigned versions of its big-selling pickup trucks. Ms. Barra has also been a champion of more fuel-efficient engines and lighter-weight vehicles.
G.M.’s announcement that Ms. Barra will take over as its chief executive in January came one day after the Treasury Department sold the last of the G.M. stock it took in exchange for the company’s government bailout.
Now G.M. can continue its comeback without the lingering, negative nickname of “Government Motors” — and under the leadership of a woman who has shattered the glass ceiling in the car business.
One of the first women to serve as a G.M. vice president, Marina Whitman, said her selection was overdue in a company that rarely breached its tenets of conformity. “One of my greatest frustrations at G.M. was we were never able to persuade top management that the world was changing rapidly and they needed to change to keep up with it,” said Ms. Whitman, a University of Michigan business professor who worked at G.M. from 1979 to 1992.
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