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GM taps female CEO; ex-Cummins chief named chairman

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General Motors Co. named Mary Barra to succeed Dan Akerson as chief executive officer, making her the first female CEO in the global automotive industry, the company announced Tuesday.

Former Cummins Inc. CEO and chairman Tim Solso was named GM's chairman.

Akerson, CEO since 2010, is retiring Jan. 15. He turned 65 in October and his wife was recently diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer, GM said in a prepared statement.

Dan Ammann, GM's chief financial officer, was named president of the company.

Solso retired from Columbus-based Cummins in 2011 after 11 years at the helm.

Barra, 51, whose career started on a factory floor as an intern more than 30 years ago, has been in charge of product development and quality of all GM cars and trucks for 22 months, fostering collaboration and wringing costs out of the supply chain. The daughter of a Pontiac die maker takes the helm after the U.S. government sold its stake in GM, giving her full freedom to take on domestic and Japanese manufacturers whose price competition threatens profit.

Succession is “one of the most important risks at General Motors for an investor with a medium- to long-term horizon,” Adam Jonas, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, said in an interview earlier this year. “Leadership in the auto industry -- one leader can make tens of billions of difference. We’ve seen that.”

As the first female CEO of a global automaker, Barra joins Ginni Rometty at International Business Machines Corp., Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo Inc., Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! Inc., Hewlett- Packard Co.’s Meg Whitman and Ursula Burns of Xerox Corp. as women who have risen to run major U.S. corporations.

She beat out Mark Reuss, 50, president of GM North America, Ammann, 41, and Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, 51, all of whom were considered potential CEOs.

Reuss replaces Barra as executive vice president for global product development, purchasing and supply chain. Girsky will become a senior adviser until leaving the automaker in April 2014. He will remain on the board.

Barra began with GM in 1980 as a student at General Motors Institute (since renamed Kettering University) in Flint, Mich., and landed her first job as a plant engineer at Pontiac Motor Division, where her father worked for 39 years. There were few women and even fewer 18-year-olds.

“It was a rougher environment,” she said in an interview in March. “It makes you harder.”

Her big break came when GM put her in a program for high- potential workers and gave her a scholarship to get an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She became an executive assistant for then-CEO Jack Smith, a perch that gave her a window into how the company worked. She recalls visiting senior leaders at GM to talk about diversity and women’s issues while she was pregnant.

Barra has played a role in GM management for a generation. Her career has include time as vice president of global manufacturing engineering, head of GM’s Detroit Hamtramck Assembly plant and executive director of competitive operations engineering. Before becoming GM’s first female product chief, she was the company’s top human-resources executive.

Most recently she led the company’s $15 billion vehicle- development operations, a high-profile role that’s given her sway over the look and feel of the full line of GM cars and trucks. She was promoted to that position in early 2011, less than six months after Akerson became CEO.

Some of the new vehicles to come out under her include the Chevrolet Impala, the first U.S. sedan in at least 20 years chosen by Consumer Reports as as the best on the market, and the Cadillac CTS, picked as Motor Trend’s car of the year.

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