Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

DETROIT — Her father was a die maker for 39 years, one of the legions of employees who performed the gritty tasks that made General Motors the nation’s largest and most powerful auto company.

And 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 GM technical school to become an engineer.

On Tuesday, Barra, 51, completed a remarkable personal odyssey when she was named as the next chief executive of GM — 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 GM, 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.

GM’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 GM in 2010.

But the selection of Barra is a milestone in an industry long dominated by men, and a signal that the stodgy corporate culture at GM has changed forever.

“This is truly the next chapter in GM’s recovery and turnaround history,” 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.”

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 GM’s global product development.

Akerson, who is retiring earlier than expected from GM because of his wife’s health problems, insisted that Barra was not chosen to make a statement about the need for diversity in the ultracompetitive auto industry.

“Mary was picked for her talent, not her gender,” Akerson said in a conference call with reporters.

During her tenure, GM has introduced competitive small cars like the Chevrolet Sonic and redesigned versions of its big-selling pickup trucks. Barra has also been a champion of more fuel-efficient engines and lighter-weight vehicles.

Barra’s biggest challenge will be to continue to ensure improvements in GM’s product lineup. Other hurdles include fixing GM’s troubled European operations, and spurring more growth in China and throughout Asia.