A day after exiting the embrace of U.S. government ownership, General Motors on Tuesday named Mary Barra as its new chief executive, appointing a three-decade veteran and product expert as its first female leader.
She will succeed the current chairman and CEO, Dan Akerson, on January 15. Akerson will leave the company on Jan 15 in order to spend time with his wife, who is suffering from advanced stage cancer, according to GM. Given his personal considerations, GM's board accelerated the succession plan, which surprised market watchers with the timing, if not the result.
The 51 year-old Barra, who currently serves as executive vice president of global product development, will be the auto maker's first female CEO, a considerable feat in the male dominated auto industry. The executive shuffle comes immediately after the Treasury announced that the U.S. government sold its final stake in the automaker, which had to be rescued at the height of the global financial crisis.
At the time, Akerson had joined the board of the largest U.S. automaker, and ascended to the top job in 2010. Barra is a 33-year veteran of GM, and has held roles in engineering and assembly. Given her pedigree with the automaker, her ascension was widely anticipated by GM watchers.
Barra takes the helm of GM at a precarious time in its history. Although retail sales of its autos surged by 19 percent last month, the auto giant is still struggling to remake itself in the shadow of a bailout that cost taxpayers nearly $10 billion, leaving it struggling to extricate itself from the derisive "Government Motors" moniker. While the government has recouped the total initial cost of the bailout with a profit, the Treasury sustained a net loss on the automobile portion of the rescue.
GM has lost money on unprofitable product lines, and has yet to come to grips with soaring pension and health care costs that have bedeviled the company for years and prompted its rescue. In a stinging rejoinder to her staff, Barra herself was once quoted as having told GM workers to improve the quality of GM's fleet. "No more crappy cars," she said at one time.
GM's post-crisis restructuring has made the company more nimble in the face of competition from challengers like Ford and Toyota, yet the company still faces looming challenges, such as how to staunch the hemorrhaging of its European division while continuing to grow its North American market.
As of Monday's close, GM's stock has risen nearly 24 percent since its second initial public offering (IPO) in November 2010, when it priced at $33 per share. The company's market capitalization is $56.8 billion.
--By CNBC's Javier E. David; Phil Lebeau contributed to this report.