By David Welch and Jeff Green
General Motors Co. is about to have two of the auto industry’s highest-ranking women in the upper echelons of its management team. The move is a sign of progress toward gender equality, though men continue to hold the vast majority of top jobs.
Dhivya Suryadevara, GM’s vice president of corporate finance for the last 11 months, will become chief financial officer on Sept. 1, replacing Chuck Stevens, the company said Wednesday. Suryadevara, 39, played a key role in GM divesting its German affiliate Opel, acquiring self-driving car unit Cruise Automation, investing in ride-hailing startup Lyft Inc. and arranging a recent investment by SoftBank Vision Fund.
“Dhivya’s experience and leadership in several key roles throughout our financial operations positions her well to build on the strong business results we’ve delivered over the last several years,” Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.
GM will join Hershey Co., American Water Works Co. and Signet Jewelers Ltd. on a very short list of S&P 500 companies with women serving as CEO and CFO. Barra has promoted women to some key positions since taking the top job in January 2014. Two years ago, she named Alicia Boler Davis executive vice president of global manufacturing, and in March she appointed Kim Brycz as senior vice president of human resources.
Those three are the only women among GM’s 17 corporate officers. With Suryadevara replacing Stevens, the Detroit-based automaker’s ranks will get closer to mirroring the share of women in senior jobs among S&P 500 companies, which is 27 percent, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit that tracks women in leaderships positions. The automaker’s board is tied with several other companies as the most diverse among S&P 500 companies with half of its directors being women.
“Any time a woman is added to the C-Suite it’s something that should be celebrated,” said Anna Beninger, Catalyst’s senior director of research. “Given that the rate of change for women into the C-suite and into the CEO level has been so slow, any time we see one, it is certainly progress. On the flip side, it is one. We have to keep in mind that doesn’t mean a trend.”
When women do reach the C-suite, they are disproportionately appointed to roles that aren’t directly related to operations and therefore are less likely to lead to a future CEO opportunity, Beninger said.
“It’s going to be critical to get women into more C-suite level roles that are in the line — positions that allow them to demonstrate the skills that are necessary to take on a CEO role eventually,” Beninger said.
Barra’s career included a stint running GM’s human resources division, but she also served as head of manufacturing engineering and head of product development. Her top executive is President Dan Ammann, who was CFO from 2011 to 2014. Past CEOs Rick Wagoner and Fritz Henderson were both CFO on their way to the CEO job.
Suryadevara has been a fast climber. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in commerce from the University of Madras in Chennai, India, and an MBA from Harvard University. She’s a chartered financial analyst and accountant and worked at UBS and PricewaterhouseCoopers before joining GM in 2005.
Stevens, 58, has been CFO at the largest U.S. automaker since January 2014 and will retire in March as a more than 40-year veteran of the company. He began at the Buick division in 1978 and, like Barra, was educated at General Motors Institute, which became Kettering University. He had a key role in GM establishing its joint venture in China with SAIC Motor Corp. and was a crucial player in GM selling its long-struggling Opel business to French automaker PSA Group.
“Stevens was well respected and liked by the Street and the timing of the announcement did catch us by surprise,” Joe Spak, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets with the equivalent of a buy rating on GM, said in a note to clients. “We expect a smooth transition and status quo on the strategy.”
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