General Motors Names Mary Barra CEO As Bailout Officially Ends

December 10, 2013

Yesterday was a big day for General Motors. Four-and-a-half years after the automaker zipped through a restructuring process facilitated by the U.S. and Canadian governments, three years after its return to the stock market, the U.S. government sold off the last of its shares in the company.

To many observers, that sell-off marked the official conclusion of a nearly $50 billion bailout project -- one that's been highly controversial but which, in the end, seems to have done far more good than harm. An analysis from the Center for Automotive Research says that the federal government stands to lose about $14 billion of its investment in GM, but that sum is massively outweighed by the $389 billion in household income, tax revenue, and other losses that the U.S. would've endured if GM had gone under.

Markets reacted positively to the sell-off: GM shares hit a record-high yesterday, closing at $40.90.

But all that may be overshadowed by today's even bigger news: GM's Dan Akerson is rumored to be stepping down from his role as CEO, and he'll be replaced by none other than longtime GM employee Mary Barra.

According to Bloomberg, Akerson will announce the changeover to employees today, with Barra's promotion to take effect in January (perhaps coinciding with the Detroit Auto Show).

OUR TAKE

We admit, the timing of the announcement is a little suspicious. Since the bailout, GM has often been dubbed "Government Motors" in the press, and yesterday's sell-off by the feds simply opened up old wounds. Like Suzuki's revelation that it was exiting the U.S. market on the day of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, we have a strong hunch that word of Barra's appointment was kept secret until the federal government confirmed that yesterday was the big sell-off day. Presumably, the hope was that hubbub around the new CEO would overshadow any negative publicity about the end of the bailout.

Then again, we can't blame GM's marketing staff for being strategic. After all, they're paid to make the company look good.

Nor can we blame GM for picking Barra. She's got a great resume, and there are several factors that make her a perfect choice for CEO:

1. She's a car person. Now 51, Barra has worked on cars for over 30 years. In that time, she's acquired an innate understanding of how the various cogs in the auto industry wheel fit together. None of the other Detroit CEOs can make a claim like that.

2. She has a long history with GM. Barra -- whose father also worked in the auto industry -- began her career as an intern at GM in the 1980s. She rose through the ranks, most recently serving as the head of product development and quality for all four GM brands. In this day of office-hopping and mergers, institutional memory like that is very hard to come by. 

3. She's the first woman to lead a major automaker. Today, in 2013, it's generally agreed that the sex, race, or other immutable characteristics shouldn't have any impact on an employee's qualifications or expectations of how she/he will perform on the job. But the reality isn't so nice and tidy: women, minorities, LGBT workers, and other non-white males constantly find themselves butting against the glass ceiling. Purely because she's a woman in what is largely a man's industry, she'll draw more attention to GM.

In our opinion, not only is Barra a perfectly qualified candidate, she's also a great figurehead for GM -- one that says the company is willing to do things that other automakers aren't. Put another way, she brings loads of experience to the table, and she gives the company a quick makeover in the press. Hopefully, Barra will continue her long string of successes in her new position.

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