12/10/2013 10:51 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

Mary Barra Takes over General Motors

General Motors named Mary Barra to succeed Dan Akerson as CEO of General Motors, the company said today.

The announcement comes a day after the U.S. Treasury reported that it had exited its partial ownership of GM that was part of the automaker's bankruptcy. Akerson is stepping down in January, sooner than he planned because his wife has advanced-stage cancer.

Barra, 51, has worked her way up from the factory floor as an intern and has been head of product development, purchasing, supply chain and quality for the last 22 months. She is an engineer and has also run human resources at the company. She has also run one of GM's assembly plants.

Barra, the first woman to run the world's largest automaker, and the first woman to run any car company, will face inevitable challenges of perception. Can a woman run a car company so dominated, as is the entire industry, by men.

Barra was in a competition for the top job with GM President of North America Mark Reuss, 50, another GM lifer, as well as Chief Financial Officer Dan Ammann, 41, and vice chairman Steve Girsky, 51.

Amman, said GM, is taking over as President. Reuss is taking over Barra's post. Theodore Solso, a board member and former CEO of Cummins Inc., takes over as chsirman.

Barra, in a chat on the floor of last year's North American International Auto Show last January, said about her job as product development, "It's been great. As long as we keep producing world class vehicles, I don't think anyone cares whether a man or woman is leading."

Barra had a tough act to follow in succeeding now-retired vice chairman Bob Lutz -- an auto industry legend--who had been brought into GM by former GM chairman and CEO G. Richard Wagoner Jr. to fix GM's broken product development function.

About Barra, Bob Lutz says: "She knows what she wants and goes after it relentlessly, but without ruffling feathers." Lutz added, "She had done a brilliant job in the global product development job, and the products coming out and that will be coming out reflect that."

Barra, despite being an engineer and steeped in every aspect of GM, suffered from coming directly from running GM’s human resources group. An HR director running product at GM after Bob Lutz?

But HR was just one stop on a diverse career that clearly prepared her for bigger things. Former BMW CEO Helmut Panke, one of the best the German automaker has ever had, made a stop as HR director before taking the top job.

As product chief for 22 months, much of Barra’s work won’t be seen for another year or two, because the gestation of new vehicles from design to showroom is around four years. She will be in the hot-seat as CEO as those products come to market and succeed or fail.

GM insiders have said that she was in the job long enough to make significant impact on the 2014 Chevy Impala, especially the interior, which was recently given the highest rating by Consumer Reports.

Barra will be the first engineer to run General Motors in many years. The last was Robert Stempel, who held the job from 1990 to 1992. Before and since then, GM has been run by CEOs Roger Smith, Jack Smith and Wagoner who were finance executives by training. Akerson was a telecommunications industry executive, having been CEO of Nextel, and was drafted out of the private-equity industry by the White House to go to GM during its bankruptcy. Akerson was preceded by Ed Whittaker, who was appointed by the White House as well, and who had been CEO of AT&T.

Akerson, say insiders, has been interested in creating a legacy for his time as CEO. Having taken over as CEO in 2011, he clearly wanted to see his tenure through to the exit of the U.S. government. Last September, he hinted at Barra succeeding him.

“The Detroit Three are all run by non-car guys,” Akerson said. “Someday, there will be a Detroit Three that’s run by a car gal.”