US automakers: Ladies, start your engines

The general media is all revved up about Mary Barra’s appointment as the next CEO of General Motors — and rightfully so.

It’s a great story – one that clicks on so many cylinders.

She’s been with the automaker since age 19 as a General Motors Institute (Kettering University) co-op student at the Pontiac Motor Division. She worked the shop floor. She was plant manager at the Detroit Hamtramck Assembly operation. She rose through the ranks, most recently as executive VP for GM’s Global Product Development & Global Purchasing and Supply Chain. She also served as VP for Global Human Resources and earlier as VP Global Manufacturing Engineering.

More than 30 years with the same company, Barra turns 52 on Christmas Eve. And less than a month after celebrating that birthday – when Dan Akerson steps down on January 15 – she will take the helm of what is still, arguably, the most recognizable car brand in the world.

It’s very much an old-fashioned, feel-good American story. Work hard. Work smart. Make the most of your opportunities. Advance. The fact that it features a woman in the driver’s seat is even juicier—given the male dominance in the automotive industry and other manufacturing sectors.

Good for her…even if she’s not the only CEO at GM.

Isela Costantini, age 42, is CEO for General Motors Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Costantini ranks No. 37 in Fortune magazine’s list of Most Powerful Women. What’s more, there’s another female CEO at a carmaker on that list: Fengying Wang, Great Wall Motor Company, China, the country’s biggest producer of SUVs.

In reviewing the Fortune list, and supplementing it with Platts’ own collective knowledge of commodities-related executives, the fact remains that female CEOs still tend to be rare. This appears to be the case more so in the US than elsewhere. It’s especially uncommon in the steel industry and metals sectors, but women seated at the head of the boardroom table are somewhat more visible in the energy arena.

For instance, in oil, perhaps the best known — and rated most internationally powerful woman by Fortune—is Maria das Gracas Silva, 60, who leads Brazil’s Petrobras. Other CEOs in oil include: Karen Agustiawan, Indonesia’s Pertamina, and Mariana Gheorghe of Petrom, Romania. Ceri Michelle Powell, of Royal Dutch Shell, Netherlands, is not CEO—but she made the most powerful list as global head of exploration — so maybe she’ll soon strike it richer.

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) has Patricia Woertz as CEO, and another biofuels CEO is Cynthia (CJ) Warner of Sapphire Energy, which just announced a joint development agreement with Phillips 66 to commercialize algae crude oil.

US-based DuPont’s Ellen Kullman makes the CEO list for petchems and resins. And in power and gas/utilities, there’s Lynn Good of Duke Energy, Debra Reed of Sempra Energy and Canada’s Nancy Southern of the ATCO Group.

In affiliated industries, there’s Clara Gaymard of GE, France, and Louise Goeser, Siemens Mesoamerica, Mexico. Also, Ruby McGregor-Smith, MITIE Group, Great Britain, heads the UK’s second-largest energy services company.

In metals, the CEO list includes: Jacynthe Côté, Rio Tinto Alcan; Dawne Hickton, of advanced titanium products maker RTI International Metals; Tamara Lundgren, Schnitzer Steel; and Japan’s Yumi Akao, Akao Aluminum, a manufacturer of pressed aluminum products. Steelmaker ArcelorMittal South Africa also has Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita, but the company announced recently she would be stepping down in February.

And last, a special shout-out to the women at Platts who contributed to the list: Sarah Baltic (Pittsburgh), Beth Evans (New York), Katharine Fraser (Houston), Marnie Hobson (Melbourne), Laura Gilcrest (Washington, DC), and Mayumi Watanabe (Tokyo).

Don’t forget me on the way up.

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  1. Joe Innace at December 17, 2013 2:04 pm

    Appreciate your comment, Dr. Martinez Rehlaender, and it’s certainly worth monitoring the executive ranks of Chinese steelmakers. But based on our research, while several powerful women are among senior executives there, the CEOs for the companies you mention are still men. But feel free to contribute other names/affiliations as you find them. Thanks again.

  2. Dr.Eloy Martinez Rehlaender at December 16, 2013 3:26 pm

    Well said. And we should look at how it is China. I found many examples in the steel industry in China, Shougang, Shagang even at Bao Steel. And is rightly so. I found many of these women very smart, very down to earth and willing to negotiate.


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