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GM names Mary Barra global product development chief

The move is the latest in a series of management changes at the automaker, which faces a slowdown in new product introductions. Barra, the first woman to hold the job, will be responsible for design, engineering and vehicle quality.

January 21, 2011|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times

General Motors Co. on Thursday continued a shake-up of its executive ranks, naming its first female product development chief.

The Detroit automaker said Mary Barra would become senior vice president of global product development and be responsible for the design, engineering and vehicle quality of the company's 11 brands around the world.

The appointment comes as GM faces a slowdown in new product introductions this year and next, threatening to slow the momentum of its recovery from a 2009 bankruptcy and the closing or sale of four of its eight U.S. car brands.

"Mary will bring a fresh perspective to the critically important job of developing vehicles that delight global customers," said Dan Akerson, GM's chief executive. "Her broad experience in engineering, manufacturing and staff functions, combined with the ability to collaborate and build strong relationships, will enhance the company's ability to deliver the products today's consumers demand."

Analysts said it would take time to see whether Barra can bring vehicles to market that will capture consumer interest and do so quickly enough to fill the gaps in GM's lineup over the next several years.

"While we applaud GM's selection of Mary Barra as new product chief and the significance as first female in that role, she is a bit of an unknown," said James Bell, an analyst with auto price information company Kelley Blue Book.

"Her resume is strong, but one cannot review the experience of a GM veteran without also recalling the peril many of these surviving leaders put the company in during the years leading up to 2009's bankruptcy," Bell said.

One of Barra's first tasks will be to oversee the design of GM's large pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles as federal fuel economy standards rise in the coming years, Bell said.

"And she will need to turn all of GM's design teams loose to create 'dream vehicles' that will inspire ownership for reasons beyond value or a sense of patriotism. Many of their global competitors have captured this spirit, and GM needs to reaffirm itself as a design leader and not a follower," he said.

Barra, 49, has been GM's human resources chief since 2009. Previously she was vice president of global manufacturing engineering and held a number of other staff positions, including running one of GM's auto factories.

Barra steps into the role that until Wednesday was held by longtime GM executive and vice chairman Thomas Stephens, who was named global chief technology officer by Akerson.

Stephens, 62, served as product development chief for only a short time. He took over the post two years ago when industry guru Robert Lutz retired after a long career at GM and other automakers. Lutz was seen as the champion of Chevrolet's electric Volt sedan and the force behind several of the company's other successful new vehicles in recent years.

Akerson, who became GM's CEO in September and led the company through its successful public stock offering last year, continues to stir up the automaker's top executive ranks.

"The current shake-ups indicate how GM leadership takes product innovation seriously and understands it's the key to its continued recovery," said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with TrueCar.com, an auto information company. "The movement at GM is an effort to align the right leaders in the appropriate positions in order to ensure GM's continued growth in the global markets."

Earlier this week Akerson named Linda Marshall head of GM's OnStar division, the part of the business that develops navigation, entertainment and communication systems for GM vehicles. She replaced Chris Preuss, who held the job for about a year.

Marshall joined GM in November after working in the telecommunications industry, including senior positions at Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless. Akerson also is a former telecommunications industry executive and has said he thinks that GM can do more to expand OnStar and make it a driver of GM vehicle sales.

GM also announced this week that Chris Perry would become GM's U.S. marketing chief after holding the top marketing spot at Chevrolet, the automaker's biggest brand. He fills a vacancy created when Akerson promoted Joel Ewanick to the top global marketing position last month.

Earlier in their careers, Ewanick and Perry worked together in the U.S. sales operations of Hyundai, the fast-growing South Korean automaker.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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