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Historic Promotion Sign of GM Change

The promotion of Susan Docherty to General Motors' top U.S. sales position last week marks the first time a woman has held that position in the automaker's 101-year history, according to the company.

"It's significant," said Anne Doyle, a former auto industry executive who works as leadership consultant. "It's a very important signal of some new thinking at General Motors."

Docherty's promotion to vice president of U.S. sales means she will become the first and only woman on CEO Fritz Henderson's newly formed, nine-person executive committee. She replaces Mark LaNeve, who is leaving the company for a position at Allstate Corp.

The challenges of her new job - a difficult one during calm times - will be amplified by GM's emergence from bankruptcy reorganization three months ago and the company's 36.3 percent U.S. sales drop so far this year.

"This isn't: Wait three years, five years for a product plan to come in. This is: Deliver results now," said Gary Dilts, senior vice president of global automotive for J.D. Power and Associates.

Dealers: Docherty fits new GM culture@

Docherty's 20-plus-year career with General Motors began simply enough, as an intern working the midnight shift at a transmission plant in Windsor.

"I had no vision at that point that I was going to enter the auto industry" as a career "but thought that with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler all producing vehicles in that city, that it would be important for me to understand the industry," she told an automotive Web site - AskPatty.com - aimed at women in 2007.

GM declined to make Docherty available following her promotion last week to vice president of U.S. sales.

In the years that followed her internship, Docherty helped launch the Saturn brand in Canada, led a turnaround of Cadillac and Chevrolet in Europe. She went on to head Hummer, before taking over as the leader for Buick-Pontiac-GMC.

Mike Mullaney, owner of a Buick-GMC dealership in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., predicted that she would do a good job.

"She is very smart and very feisty," Mullaney said. "She has very strong opinions about the way she wants things done and a very, very good grasp of what should be done."

The trust built up among Buick and GMC dealers over the past 16 months as general manager of the so-called BPG brands will come in handy for Docherty as she takes the reins for a position that by its very nature makes her one of GM's highest-profile executives.

As vice president of U.S. sales, she will be overseeing the reduction of 2,400 dealers by the end of next year and simultaneously leading the charge to increase sales.

Docherty, 46, handled the past year - which included beginning the wind-down of dealers and the elimination of the Pontiac brand - with empathy and honesty, said Mike Bowsher, president of Carl Black Automotive, which owns Chevrolet, Buick and GMC dealerships in Florida, Tennessee and the Atlanta area.

Dealers also praised her handling of the redesigned Buick LaCrosse and GMC Terrain launches this year.

Her management style, as described by dealers, seems to fit with the cultural change being pushed for by GM CEO Fritz Henderson.

"She's a decision-maker, she's quick, she's smart," Bowsher said. "I've seen her cut through bureaucracy."

The decision to stay inside GM to find a replacement could also help the company keep up the pace of GM's sweeping restructuring work.

"They're running at a fast pace," Dilts said. "She knows what that pace is. She knows what the political temperature settings are and how to work with them."

Doyle said the addition of a woman to GM's highest ranks will help the company better position itself to female buyers.

"One of the Achilles' heels of the auto industry for decades has been the fact that their leadership was not representative of the marketplace," she said.

Docherty's promotion, Doyle added, is significant but it's "just the beginning."

Some of Docherty's career highlights include helping launch the Cadillac Escalade SUV, which is credited for breathing new life into the Cadillac brand.

Docherty began with GM in the early 1980s working part time while attending the University of Windsor. In 1986, she began as a full-time worker at GM's Ontario call center.

"What attracted me when I first took that job in Oshawa was how dynamic this business was, how many opportunities there were ... the avenues in automotive were limitless," Docherty told AskPatty.com. "There is a sexiness about this industry and the fact that there are so many products and so many choices. It can be mind-numbing, but it's never dull!"

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