GM on Tuesday announced that Mary Barra, a 30-year GM veteran, will replace Dan Akerson as CEO — making her the first female chief executive in the auto industry.
The decision is attracting a lot of applause: Not only is Barra a woman, but she has a reputation for cutting through red tape. She famously passed a bold "jeans-allowed" policy while heading HR at GM, writing in a memo, "our dress code is 'dress appropriately." She also once ended a meeting early so she could pick up her daughter, a move a male employee later thanked her for, Barra told Bloomberg Businessweek. But if you take away that extra X chromosome, Barra is actually kind of a retro choice for the century-old car maker. Here's why:
She's an internal hire
In 2012, Crist/Kolder Associates, an executive search firm that follows trends among top executives, reported that more and more companies are hiring CEOs from outside their companies, instead of within.
Barra is an "internal hire" — and that's putting it lightly. Save for a stint at Stanford's business school, which she attended on a GM scholarship, the Detroit native has worked at GM through her entire 33-year career. Starting as a student of the General Motors Institute at 18, she won her first job as a plant engineer at Pontiac Motor Division, where her father worked. From there, she became executive assistant for then-CEO Jack Smith, and worked her way through various departments, heading GM's Detroit Hamtramck Assembly Plant, running Global Manufacturing Engineering, and heading HR. Barra's path from engineer to CEO is about as traditional as you get.
She's a Billy Durant adherent
Barra has also showed a retro bent during her last 22 months as head of product development. Tim Higgins explained in Bloomberg Businessweek in June:
To make GM the world's most profitable automaker, Barra is following the example of Billy Durant, who founded the company 104 years ago: Slash development costs by building a wider variety of cars and trucks off the same parts. And she's trying to do that while avoiding what happened in the 1970s and '80s, when the company earned a reputation for slapping Chevy, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile badges on similar-looking cars to save money. [Bloomberg Businessweek]
She's a "car girl"
Barra is a car girl in the classic sense. Her father was a tool-and-die maker at GM, so she grew up around the auto industry before joining it herself right out of high school. Outgoing CEO Dan Akerson — who worked in tech and finance before running GM — even said in September, "The Detroit Three are all run by non-car guys," adding, "Someday, there will be a Detroit Three that's run by a car gal."
As Erik Gordon, a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business told the AP of Barra, "There's nobody with more years of honest 'car-guy' credentials than she has."