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DETROIT — Mary Barra has spent three years as product chief for General Motors Co., making cars that drive better, last longer, and look good in showrooms.
Now she will take on an even bigger job. On Tuesday, the board named the 33-year company veteran its chief executive officer, making her the first woman to lead a U.S. car company.
Ms. Barra replaces Dan Akerson, who moved up retirement plans by several months to help his wife, Karin, battle advanced cancer.
When Ms. Barra starts her new job Jan. 15, she will lead a company that’s made nearly $20 billion since emerging from bankruptcy in 2010, much of it from the cars and trucks she helped develop. But she faces challenges of paring down GM’s costs and winning over buyers in international markets such as India and South America.
Mr. Akerson, 65, said he had planned to stay at least until spring, but his wife’s diagnosis changed that. He said the board unanimously picked Ms. Barra from several internal candidates because of the breadth of her experience, her management record, her people skills, and her understanding of GM’s operations.
“This is an executive who has a vision of where she wants to take the organization,” he said.
Since February, 2011, Ms. Barra has held what many say is the most important job at GM — senior vice president for global product development.
She joined the company in 1980 as an engineering student and became a plant manager, executive director of engineering, and head of human resources.
Along the way, she earned a reputation as a manager who made tough decisions, yet was able to get people to follow her lead and work as a team, according to current and former GM executives.
The 51-year-old executive has been in charge of design, engineering, and quality for all GM vehicles and has shepherded most of the company’s recent new-vehicle introductions. Under her command, GM rolled out brawny new full-size pickup trucks, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, and the Chevrolet Impala full-size car, which earned the highest score for a sedan in testing by Consumer Reports magazine.
Among Ms. Barra’s biggest tasks is executing plans designed to cut costs and put out better products, Mr. Akerson said. One big step in getting there: making more vehicles off the same underpinnings, or platforms, that can be sold in multiple markets, like the Chevrolet Cruze compact car.
Mr. Akerson praised Ms. Barra for progress in that area. In 2009, GM had 30 vehicle platforms, adding to manufacturing complexity and cost.
Under her leadership, it’s moving to build nearly 90 percent of its cars and trucks off five or fewer platforms by the end of this decade, Mr. Akerson said.
Ms. Barra grew up near Pontiac, Mich., in a car-oriented family. Her father was a die maker who retired from GM after 39 years. GM’s previous two CEOs, Mr. Akerson and Ed Whitacre, Jr., came from outside the auto industry and lacked Ms. Barra’s experience, said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
“There’s nobody with more years of honest ‘car-guy’ credentials than she has,” Mr. Gordon said. “She’s the one to do the breakthrough.”