Even if it’s not always popular in GM’s hometown, Dan Akerson’s three-year tenure as General Motors Co.’s chairman and CEO could most simply be described as the “change”.

Akerson is “absolutely convinced” that GM “has changed, ” he said in an interview this week. Less than a month before he relinquishes the CEO’s office to Mary Barra, he is confident the team chosen by him and GM’s directors will press ahead with a transformation enabled by the largest industrial bankruptcy in American history.

The automaker’s leaders, as well as cars and trucks produced by legions of designers, engineers and assembly line workers, are more likely to shatter convention than repeat it in a self-destructive loop long manufactured in Detroit.

He is the Navy man who sharpened his business chops in telecom and private equity before joining GM’s board in 2009 and a year later becoming its fourth CEO in two years. Now, as he prepares to leave to care for his ailing wife, Karin, Akerson sees the foundations of a company rebuilding itself to last well into the coming century.

GM’s complicated product development bureaucracy, too long maligned for producing me-too metal instead of category killers, now is minting some of its strongest vehicles in decades. GM insourced and consolidated its vast information technology apparatus, the 14th largest in the world. It linked hourly profit-sharing to management bonuses, equalized pensions, banned demotions and restructured its financial management systems.

“When you think about what we’ve been able to do in a relatively short period of time,” Akerson said, “it’s something of an indictment of the culture that was here.”

This is early-stage evidence of a remarkable turnaround for an industrial icon whose punishing debt, high costs and reactive executives juggling too many brands teetered near collapse at the onset of the global financial meltdown five years ago.


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