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GM takes fresh tack on product development

Making history: Mary Barra, a 33-year GM veteran and engineer, is the first woman to lead a global car-maker.

First global female product chief to shape GM’s next generation of cars

General Motors logo21 Jan 2011

By MIKE COSTELLO

GENERAL Motors has appointed its first female global product development chief, Mary Barra, who has been tasked with re-shaping the giant company’s new-model line-up for a new era of green cars.

The 49-year-old electrical engineer, whose most recent role was vice-president of global human resources, replaces Tom Stephens, who has been shifted to the role of global chief technology officer.

As vice-president of global product development, Ms Barra follows in the large footsteps of the legendary Bob Lutz, who oversaw the GM product portfolio for almost a decade before he stepped down from the role in the middle of the global financial crisis in 2009.

Having replaced Mr Lutz in April 2009, Mr Stephens is therefore moving on to the technology role after less than two years in charge of product development.

Ms Barra becomes not only GM’s first female product chief but the first for any of the American Big Three car companies.

For most of her career with GM since joining the company as a co-op student in 1980, Ms Barra has been on the manufacturing side of the business, having been plant manager for GM’s Hamtramck assembly plant and GM vice-president of global manufacturing engineering.

But, after being appointed vice-president of global human resources in 2009, she helped to guide GM out of chapter 11 bankruptcy, working directly with government-appointed chairman Ed Whitacre.

Ms Barra will also oversee the development of products to comply with increasingly stringent emissions laws around the globe, leading a 36,000-strong team of designers, engineers, program managers and quality assurance staff.

 center imageFrom top: Tom Stephens, Dan Akerson, Bob Lutz and the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle.

Announcing her appointment, GM chairman and CEO Dan Akerson said Ms Barra would bring a fresh perspective to the critically important job of developing vehicles that delight global customers.

“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,” said Mr Akerson.

Ms Barra said GM has to work harder than ever to exceed the expectations of today’s global customer.

“I’m excited by the opportunity associated with this new challenge and pleased to be joining such a strong team with deep technical knowledge and experience.”

Mr Stephens is a 42-year General Motors veteran who was previously vice-president of engineering in GM’s powertrain and truck divisions, and is an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering.

During his tenure in global product development, Mr Stephens, 62, struggled to emerge from the shadow of the outspoken Mr Lutz, who was credited by many as being the figurehead of a product revival at the corporation, with vehicles such as the range-extender Volt gathering widespread acclaim.

In a statement, Stephens expressed enthusiasm for his newly-created office.

“Today's cars and trucks are technology on wheels,” he said. “I'm excited about working with the GM team in new ways and focusing my energy to keep us on the leading edge of automotive innovation.”

GM has also made new appoints in its US marketing hierarchy, naming former Hyundai Motor America marketing executive Chris Perry as vice-president US marketing, replacing Joel Ewanick, who has been elevated to global marketing officer.

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