General Motors picked Mary Barra, its product development chief and a 33-year company veteran, as its next CEO. She will become the first woman to head any major car company.
GM said Tuesday that Barra, 51, will replace Dan Akerson on Jan. 15. Akerson, 65, chairman and CEO, moved up his retirement plans by several months because his wife, Karin, is battling an advanced form of cancer.
''I need to spend all my time and energy in fighting this disease with my wife,'' Akerson said on a conference call with reporters. Akerson had originally planned to stay into the spring or summer.
Since February 2011 Barra has held what many say is the most important job at GM - senior vice president for global product development. Barra, who joined GM in 1980, is currently in charge of design, engineering and quality for all of GM's vehicles across the globe 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. Its quality scores also rose in surveys conducted by J.D. Power and Associates. She also led development of the new Chevrolet Corvette and several new Cadillac models.
Akerson took over GM in September 2010, as the company prepared to go public about a year after emerging from bankruptcy protection. During his tenure GM has made billions of dollars in profits and is sitting on $26.8 billion in cash. Its profit margins in North America are a healthy 9 percent. He and Barra have revamped GM's lineup of cars and trucks.
On Monday, GM officially shed the derisive moniker of ''Government Motors'' when the government sold the last of the GM shares it inherited as part of a bailout in 2008 and 2009.
But Barra still needs to trim GM's costs and win over buyers in markets such as India and South America. One big step in getting there: producing more vehicles that can be sold in multiple markets, such as the Chevrolet Cruze compact car.
The choice of Barra was unanimous, Akerson said, because of her breadth of experience, management and people skills and her understanding of GM's operations. The GM board considered only internal candidates.
''This is an executive who has a