The automotive industry may have taken a hit in recent years, but it's still one of the largest industries in the world. And its leaders rank among the most powerful and influential captains of industry the world has ever known. Yet, every single one of them — without exception — throughout their hundred-plus years of operation, has been a man. Until now.
General Motors recently made headlines by naming Mary Barra as its first female CEO. The announcement was made just last month as the most high-profile in a series of appointments to replace outgoing executive Dan Akerson, who has steered the industrial giant out of bankruptcy since his appointment in 2009. Barra was named as chief executive, Dan Ammann was promoted to president from his previous post as CFO and executive VP, and Theodore Solso (formerly chief executive of diesel engine manufacturer Cummins) was named chairman of the board.
While the appointment may come as welcome news to advocates of female advancement within the ranks of corporate America, GM insists that it was Barra's experience, and not her gender, that determined the appointment. She joined the company at age 18 straight out of college, and worked her way up the ranks to head up the human resources, purchasing, manufacturing and product development divisions.
“My goals as CEO were to put the customer at the center of every decision we make, to position GM for long term success and to make GM a company that America can be proud of again,” said departing chief executive Dan Akerson. “We are well down that path, and I'm certain that our new team will keep us moving in that direction.”
The series of appointments at General Motors also cast light on the succession plans at Detroit's other automakers, Ford and Chrysler. Rumors began circulating recently that Ford CEO Alan Mullaly was planning to leave the industry altogether to man the helm at Microsoft, but Mullaly more recently confirmed his intentions to stay at Ford. The 68-year-old California native came to the Dearborn-based automaker in 2006 after many years at Boeing, and is widely credited with keeping Ford in the black when its rivals declared bankruptcy and had to be bailed out by the federal government.
The greater upheaval is being felt, however, at the smallest of Detroit's Big Three automakers. Chrysler has been formally taken over by Italian auto group Fiat, which recently purchased the remaining shares from the United Auto Workers union. The move solidifies the position of chief executive Sergio Marchionne at the head of both automotive conglomerates and paves the way for a formalized merger between the two that will bridge the gap between Turin and Michigan. Sooner or later, however, Marchionne will need to resign. And when he does, he could be succeeded by another central power figure or see his various duties divided between several successors.
The lifelong workaholic — who reportedly brokered the Fiat/Chrysler merger from a beach in Florida while on vacation — has indicated that, whenever he does retire, his successor (or successors) will likely come from within the joint Chrysler-Fiat Group Executive Council that includes the heads of the various brands and divisions under the group's umbrella, as well as its chief financial officer, regional sales chiefs and other department heads. Of the 20 members who sit on that executive body, however, only one – human resources chief Linda Knoll — is female, so the chances of Fiat/Chrysler following GM's lead seem rather slim.