General Motors Tuesday named company veteran Mary Barra as its new chief executive, making her the first woman ever to lead a major automaker.
With the company just exiting its 2008 government rescue and sales hitting their best levels in six years, Barra was named to succeed Dan Akerson as CEO on January 15.
Barra, 51, currently works as executive vice president for global product development, purchasing and supply chain. GM said she had been "a leader in the company's ongoing turnaround."
She has worked at GM for 33 years, rising through a series of manufacturing, engineering and senior staff positions.
She "was picked for her talent, not her gender," Akerson said.
"She grew up in the company, worked on the factory floor, managed plants and then managed the largest and most complex part of our business -- that's global product development and global supply chain management."
Akerson said chatter about GM being a boy's club was "quite dated" and noted that several leading GM divisions are led by women, as are about 25 percent of the company's plants.
Barra, along with a small group of other GM executives, had been fingered in recent months as possible future CEOs. While her appointment was not a surprise, analysts said the timing came earlier than anticipated.
Akerson had planned to retire in mid-to-late 2014, but accelerated the time frame because his wife is at an advanced stage of cancer.
"I will leave with great satisfaction in what we have accomplished, great optimism over what is ahead and great pride that we are restoring General Motors as America's standard bearer in the global auto industry," said Akerson in a message to employees.
Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at Edmunds called Tuesday "an historic day for GM and the auto industry."
The announcement came a day after the US Treasury said it sold its last shares in the company, after the government took financial control with a $50 billion injection in 2008 to prevent it from going under in the economic crisis.
GM had already made a successful return to the stock market in November 2010, and auto sales this year have been their best since 2007, placing the company solidly ahead of the number 2 US automaker, Ford, which did not need a bailout in 2008.
Barra joins a growing list of prominent female chief executives across a wide swath of US sectors.
Others include IBM's Virginia Rometty, Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard, Patricia Woertz at Archer Daniels Midland, Ellen Kullman at DuPont and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer.
But Barra's appointment also stood out from other recent GM leaders for another reason, according to Barclays: her background as an engineer.
"We see the announcement as a positive, as it marks the first time in a very long time that GM is being run by an engineer," Barclays said.
"We believe the focus on effective product development and engineering processes will become more prevalent within GM with Barra's promotion, and will be part of the company's evolution and ongoing improvement."
Akerson came to GM after working on buyouts for investment firm the Carlyle Group and followed other financial specialists to the top spot. Under his watch, GM streamlined its car portfolio and offered more new models.
Akerson said he was proud of GM's progress so far, but more was needed.
"We've reformed GM," Akerson said. "As far as we've come, we've got to go that far again."
Barra, in comments distributed by GM, said coming up with great cars is the key to GM's success.
"We're dedicated to the customer, we're dedicated to making sure we have great products and we're dedicated to winning," she said.
Analysts said major challenges include improving GM's performance in Europe given the weak economy in the region and keeping a high profile in China, an important growth market.
Analysts are also keen to see the company make significant payoffs to shareholders through a dividend and a share repurchase program.
GM also announced Tuesday that board member Theodore Solso would succeed Akerson as chairman -- splitting the CEO and chairman roles.
Dan Ammann, currently executive vice president and chief financial officer, will become president and assume responsiblity for regional operations around the world. The global Chevrolet and Cadillac brands will report to him. A replacement as CFO will be named later.
GM shares shed 1.2 percent in an overall lower market. Shares were off 0.9 percent in mid-day trade. Shares have risen more than 60 percent over the last 12 months.