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'No More Crappy Cars': Who Is Mary Barra, GM's Next CEO?

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The first woman to head a major car company looks to steer the auto giant toward success.

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This week seems to be all about starting over at General Motors (NYSE:GM). It's only Tuesday, and the country's largest automaker has already grabbed two front-page headlines -- both of which help put a period on the end of the sentence that was Chapter 11 bankruptcy and a highly controversial, federally-backed bailout.

Firstly, GM has, at long last, shed the "Government Motors" stigma. After making $39 billion back on its $49.5 billion investment, the Treasury Department announced Monday that it had dumped the last of its company stock. This parting of ways lifts the heavy burden of government ownership from GM's shoulders and gives the car company the chance to make over its image in the eyes of consumers.

What better way for a corporation to put on a fresh face than literally changing out its leadership -- and breaking new ground within the industry at the same time?

Enter big story number two: GM has named its first female CEO.

Next month, Mary Barra will succeed Dan Akerson as GM's chief executive, and become the first woman to head not only this company, but any major automaker. Until now, GM's highest-ranking female official had been its senior vice president of global product development and global purchasing and supply chain -- the job Barra last held at the company.

As GM's "car czar," Barra imposed one particularly memorable mandate on her employees: "No more crappy cars."

It's been a long ascent through the glass ceiling for Barra. She began her 33-year career at GM in 1980 as an electrical engineering student at Kettering University, working in a Pontiac factory to earn money to help pay her tuition. In 1988, she was given a GM fellowship and graduated two years later with a master's degree in business administration from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Throughout her tenure, Barra has served as plant manager at Detroit Hamtramck Assembly, executive director of competitive operations engineering, and held several engineering and staff positions. As vice president of global human resources during GM's emergence from bankruptcy, Barra played a critical role in the company's recovery. "I wanted to drive a new culture," she said.

In her most recent position, Barra led the design, engineering, program management, and quality improvement of GM's 11 brands throughout the world. She was tasked with electrifying over half a million vehicles by 2017, and was at the helm of sexy overhauls like the 2014 Corvette Stingray convertible, which she calls a "halo vehicle."

The business media has been taking note of Barra's success. Forbes ranked her No. 35 on its list of 2013 Power Women -- a six-place jump from last year's list -- and just two weeks before her new CEO title was publicized, Fortune named Barra the world's most powerful woman in the "old boys club" of the auto industry.

"With an amazing portfolio of cars and trucks and the strongest financial performance in our recent history, this is an exciting time at today's GM," Barra said in the company statement. "I'm honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed."
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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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