Car 'Guy' Back In General Motors Driver Seat

The headline this week is that General Motors will be the first automaker to appoint a woman to the top job. Mary Barra, GM's EVP of global product development, purchasing and supply chain, steps up to CEO in January, when Dan Akerson departs.

The bigger news, however, from a corporate culture standpoint, is that with Barra, an engineer is back in GM's driver's seat for the first time in 20 years — since Robert Stempel ran the show in the early 90s, and after a succession of executives from the finance side of the aisle. 

"It could be interpreted as a signal that GM believes it's as much a carmaking company as a money-making company," says Edmunds.com senior analyst Bill Visnic. "I think it's an important signal that as GM sheds the last of its financially focused baggage, it's choosing an engineer to start a new era and frame the company's revised vision." 

Says Jim Sanfilippo, long-time industry executive and consultant, "She has grace. She is grounded, highly educated, clear eyed, pragmatic, and a straight shooter."  

Akerson, a former telecom executive and financier, who joined the GM board in 2009 and stepped up as chairman and CEO on 2010, is leaving the company earlier than anticipated, as his wife is gravely ill. His departure precipitates several other seating reassignments. Dan Ammann, EVP and chief financial officer, will take the role of president, managing the company's regional operations worldwide. The global units of Chevrolet and Cadillac as well as GM Financial will report to him. Mark Reuss, EVP and president of North America, will replace Barra as EVP, global product development, purchasing and supply chain.  Tim Mahoney remains Chevrolet’s global CMO.

And Alan Batey, currently SVP of global Chevrolet and U.S. sales and marketing will replace Reuss, thus becoming EVP and President, North America. Batey oversaw the rollout of Chevrolet's global "Find New Roads" campaign last year. Is that for naught? The automaker's recent announcement that Chevrolet will no longer be GM's European brand by the end of 2015 puts the larger global-Chevrolet strategy on notice. The company spent a lot of money supporting the worldwide ambitions for Chevrolet with such investments as a major sponsorship of Manchester United, the new campaign, and a Chevrolet global agency conglomerate, Commonwealth.

Sanfilippo says backing away from these global ambitions is a head scratcher. 

"It's crazy because the bigger picture is that GM does not have a global brand; and I think what it's doing is repeating the mistake GM made in America under [former GM president] Ron Zarrella [who said every car model was its own brand and left in 2001] and when the company put GM plaques on cars. It's in-authenticating the brands around the world." 

How was Akerson's report card? Well, under his watch the company went from belly-up to belly-down on the force of  lots of strong products and a healthier balance sheet. Sanfilippo said Akerson got a lot right. "Product was done right and there's a real glimmer around Cadillac and around small cars. Impala had the highest initial consumer reports rating in history of any domestic car; there's a glow around Camaro in the face of very strong competition; and Corvette is noteworthy.” 

But he adds that Akerson also came in with a player's handicap because of the bailout terms. "It's like you gave the worst NFL team the 11 best players, 15 points in every game, and 15 points in the Super Bowl. He did a lot but with a structure that gave him no debt, incredible tax credits, a company reduced to four brands, and a sweetheart union deal dictated by the government. I think everyone should be happy with [Akerson], but in the larger picture, people will squint at the circumstances under which he achieved it."

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