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General Motors said Mary Barra, its global product development chief, will be its next chief executive. (John F. Martin / John F. Martin for General Motors / January 10, 2012)

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The sudden illness of Karin Akerson, the wife of General Motors Co. Chief Executive Dan Akerson, sped up the naming of a new top executive at the nation’s largest automaker.

GM said Mary Barra will succeed Akerson in January.  Barra, 51, heads the company’s global product development team and has worked at GM since joining the business as an intern 33 years ago.

She is the first woman to head an automaker, and joins just a handful of female CEOs at large American businesses, including Marissa Mayer at Yahoo Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Meg Whitman.

"I never thought I'd see the day that a woman would head a car company -- much less the biggest car company in America,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst at auto information company Edmunds.com. “But Mary Barra's elevation to CEO of General Motors is not just about filling a female quota. Mary is an extremely competent automotive executive who has proven herself repeatedly.”

The elevation of a woman to the top position at a major industrial company demonstrates there are other competent female executives qualified to take over CEO roles, said Kathy Kram, a Boston University School of Management professor.

“I am glad to see it happening a bit more often, but not yet often enough,” Kram said.  

Barra’s gender also presents the risk that she will face far more scrutiny than her male counterparts “because she is so visible as the first female CEO of GM,” said Kram.  “That would not be helpful to her, for the company, or for those of us who want to see more diversity in the C-suite.”

Analysts said Barra earned the position based on her deep knowledge of automotive engineering and production.

“It marks the first time in a very long time that GM is being run by an engineer,” said Brian Johnson, an analyst with Barclays Capital.

He said GM’s focus on “effective product development and engineering processes will become more prevalent within GM with Barra’s promotion.”

Others thought Barra is a good choice to run GM.

“The selection of Mary Barra is rooted in a quality executive, groomed for the position and with a deep understanding of GM’s past and future culture,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst at IHS Automotive.
Barra also will join GM’s board of directors.

Akerson, 65, said he didn’t plan to retire until the latter half of next year but the diagnosis of his wife Karin with an advanced stage of cancer changed his plans.

“It was not my intention for my days at General Motors to end this way,” Akerson said, “but when you think of life’s priorities, my family and my wife rank No. 1.”

Akerson announced his retirement just a day after the federal government closed the books on the taxpayer bailout of GM, selling the remaining shares in the nation's largest automaker and taking an expected $10.5-billion loss.

“I will leave with great satisfaction in what we have accomplished, great optimism over what is ahead and great pride that we are restoring General Motors as America’s standard bearer in the global auto industry,” Akerson said.

The transition includes GM splitting up the chairman and chief executive’s position.

The automaker named Theodore Solso to succeed Akerson as chairman.  Solso, 66, is the former chairman and CEO of Cummins Inc. and has been a member of the GM board since June 2012.

Akerson said GM’s board thought it prudent to split the positions so that Barra could focus on running the company and operational challenges while Solso could deal with board issues.

Barra’s challenges include reducing the number of platforms GM uses to build its vehicles. This is a global industry trend in which GM has lagged. The automaker wants to produce 90% of its vehicles on just five platforms.