General Motors Co. newly retired Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson, in his farewell to Detroit, talked about joining GM’s board and moving into the top job.
He also reflected on its bankruptcy and subsequent success, how he has worked to streamline the company and on GM’s new CEO Mary Barra, the first woman to lead an automaker.
Akerson, 65, answered Automotive News’ Editor-in-Chief Keith Crain’s questions in a wide-ranging fireside-chat style interview that lasted about 50 minutes.
He said he hopes he can look back at GM in 2025 or 2030 and say he was part of the success. He said he thinks Barra will do “extraordinarily well.”
“I hope Mary’s gangbusters successful and my name fades to black,” Akerson told reporters Wednesday night.
Akerson retired from GM effective last Wednesday after coming to the automaker from private equity firm The Carlyle Group. The automaker announced in December it was accelerating pulling forward Akerson’s retirement plans by several months after his wife Karin was diagnosed with cancer in the fall.
GM named Barra CEO last month and she took over her new role Wednesday. The company named Theodore “Tim” Solso, a GM board member since June 2012 and former chairman and CEO of Cummins Inc., to serve as non-executive chairman of the board.
Akerson told reporters following the event that his proudest moment at GM was when the company won the J.D. Power & Associates quality award in 2013, and that GM’s initial public offering was a “landmark” event for the company.
He said the company has made a lot of progress since bankruptcy such as reducing its pension obligation by a quarter, transforming its information technology organization and improving its relationship with United Auto Workers President Bob King, even with freezing wages the first year out of bankruptcy for GM workers. When Crain asked Akerson if he wanted to keep two-tier wages, he said GM needs to have competitive wages.
When he arrived at GM and in the auto industry, Akerson said there were a lot of personalities “bigger than life.” He said he did away with the 38,000-square-feet of office space for four people.
“If anyone was traveling, I thought I was in a morgue,” he said of the 39th floor that now has offices for a dozen or so GM leaders, plus assistants.
Akerson also hailed some changes that were made in the company such as speeding up financial reporting by eight weeks. GM used to estimate product line profitability. Now it can get it down to the car if it wants to, Akerson said.
Akerson said GM leaders including global product chief Mark Reuss, Barra and GM President Dan Ammann stepped up during GM’s difficult times and under pay restrictions as part of government ownership.
“I don’t think money was an issue. This was a mission,” Akerson said. “You had to believe you were doing this for the good of the company, this region of the country and for the United States.”
He said he’d think about writing a book about his experiences at GM. Akerson said he will miss Detroit. When asked by Crain if he would ever want to run Detroit, he said. “No, that’s too hard.”
Barra will face tough scrutiny, Akerson said.
“If I made the same mistake she made, I don’t think it would get the attention,” he told reporters after his chat. “She’s going to be analyzed by folks like yourself. Conversely, when she does something good, I hope she gets a lot more attention.”
Akerson said he, too, has been surprised by the extent of the media glare on Barra. He even warned her to skip the tall shoes in favor of running shoes at Friday’s auto show Charity Preview, where she’s expected to cut the ribbon.
Akerson joined GM’s board in July 2009 and became CEO in August 2010 and later added the chairman’s title. He oversaw GM through its initial public stock offering in late 2010 and helped restore profitability to the company — now 15 straight quarters. Last year, the government exited ownership in the automaker, it returned to investment grade rating and its stock returned to Standard & Poor’s 100 and 500 indexes. Tuesday, GM announced it will issue a dividend of 30 cents a share.
“He’s really made a tremendous impact on the company over the last few years. He leaves a legacy of tremendous progress,” GM President Dan Ammann told reporters earlier Wednesday. “We’ve still got a long way to go as a company. We’ve got a leadership team that he really put together in place now. We’ve all worked together for a few years, three or four years now. We feel really good about working with each other. We’ve got a clear path about what we want to do.”