GM Promotes First Female Head of Vehicle Development

General Motors Co. Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson named human-resources head Mary Barra senior vice president of global product development, going outside the current vehicle team for his new leader on future models.

Barra replaces Tom Stephens, who was named the top technical officer yesterday. Before she became vice president of global human resources in July 2009, Barra had been vice president of global manufacturing engineering since February 2008, GM said in a statement today.

Barra’s manufacturing background gives her deep knowledge of GM’s network of 171 factories that stamp steel, make engines and assemble vehicles for sale in 120 countries, said Jim Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics Inc., an auto-industry consulting firm in Birmingham, Michigan. This may let Detroit-based GM more quickly deliver models catered to regional tastes.

“The challenge is going to be executing on a timely basis and communicating with management that has zero experience in the industry about the process of bringing product to market,” Dennis Virag, president of Automotive Consulting Group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said in a telephone interview.

Akerson and Ed Whitacre, a former CEO at AT&T Inc., spent their careers mostly in telecommunications and were made GM directors by President Barack Obama’s Automotive Task Force in 2009. Chris Liddell, GM’s chief financial officer and former Microsoft Corp. executive, is another executive without automotive experience who joined GM after its 2009 bankruptcy.

Executive Changes

The promotion marks the third round of executive changes by Akerson since he replaced Whitacre as CEO Sept. 1 and led an initial public offering in November. Akerson promoted Joel Ewanick, formerly vice president of U.S. marketing, to global chief marketing officer in December and named a new president of GM’s OnStar communications technology unit on Jan. 18.

The new product development chief’s job will be to work closely with Stephens and global Chief Marketing Officer Joel Ewanick to get a consumer voice in GM’s future models and decide which technologies should be used in those cars, Barra, 49, said in a telephone interview. The three will work as a team to develop GM’s product strategy, she said.

“My job is to work closely with those two to make sure we’re working from the customer’s perspective and leveraging technology,” Barra said. “We will look to make sure the product is right and get vehicles to market as quickly as possible.”

Coordinating Efforts

When Barra was running global vehicle engineering, one of her jobs was to get vehicles and plants coordinated so the company can modify models from different regions for sale in other markets, she said. Barra worked on the Opel Insignia in Europe, which went on sale late last year in the U.S. and China as the Buick Regal.

Barra went to all of GM’s global engineering centers before taking over human resources and said she wants to “step up and accelerate the process” of bringing new products to market.

“Dan said this is an opportunity to strengthen the way we go to market,” said Barra. “Job number one is we have several vehicles that we’re going to launch this year that we’ve announced, and others we haven’t yet.”

GM has only a few critical holes in its lineup, said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“They have work to do in the midsized truck, they have weakness in the Impala full-sized car that needs to be updated fairly quickly, and they have to accelerate the replacement for the full-sized pickup truck,” he said.

First Woman

She is the first woman to lead product development at GM.

“Every individual brings different perspectives,” Barra said of being a woman in a job traditionally held by male executives. “If this motivates young women to pursue math and science, that would be very fulfilling.”

Akerson, the 62-year-old former CEO of Nextel Communications Inc., is modeling GM’s leadership structure after a technology or telecommunications company, said Stephens, who has worked at GM for 42 years.

“This is somewhat different than you typically see in our automotive industry, but commonplace in telecommunications or other high-tech industries,” Stephens said yesterday in an interview. “We’re kind of copying that model.”

Stephens said his responsibilities will include positioning GM to meet fuel-economy and emissions rules, developing advanced propulsion technology such as what is used in GM’s Chevrolet Volt, and improving safety and connectivity features.

Stephens, 62, had succeeded Vice Chairman Bob Lutz as product chief in April 2009.

Appointing Barra, a longtime manufacturing engineer, to run product development could also help get the different areas of the company working together, Hall said.

‘Nuking The Fiefdoms’

“Managing GM is about getting rid of fiefdoms,” Hall said in a telephone interview. “Cross-breeding executives could be a way of nuking the fiefdoms.”

Including former CEO Rick Wagoner, who was fired in March 2009, GM has had four CEOs in less than two years. Whitacre reassigned more than 35 managers during his eight-month tenure running the company.

Promoting Barra is a risky move for Akerson, because GM hasn’t replaced leadership in product development with the kind of expertise that Lutz brought to the company, said Maryann Keller, founder of Maryann Keller & Associates, a consulting firm in Stamford, Connecticut.

“The appointment is strange,” Keller said in a telephone interview. “Why does GM have anything that people are excited about? Because of Bob Lutz. I’m not sure that she has the background for this job.”

GM fell 22 cents, or 0.6 percent, to $37.18 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange trading. The shares have gained 13 percent since the IPO.

To contact the reporters on this story: David Welch in Southfield, Michigan at dwelch12@bloomberg.net; Craig Trudell in Southfield, Michigan, at ctrudell1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jamie Butters at jbutters@bloomberg.net.

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