GM's fast-rising CFO takes on high-speed strategy

GM CFO Dhivya Suryadevara, right, and CEO Mary Barra will divide the responsibilities of President Dan Ammann, who is moving to the company's autonomous vehicle unit, as the automaker enters the next phase of its massive restructuring. Photo credit: AUTOMOTIVE NEWS ILLUSTRATION

DETROIT — Five years ago, Dhivya Suryadevara was working to stabilize General Motors' unwieldy pension accounts. Now she's being called on to help lead the company through an unsteady future.

The 39-year-old CFO, who will add corporate strategy and development to her duties on Jan. 1, has quickly risen through the ranks of the company since starting as a senior financial analyst in 2005.

But her new tasks — a multibillion-dollar restructuring, overseeing business development and driving shareholder value — will pose some of the toughest challenges yet.

Along with CEO Mary Barra and product chief Mark Reuss, Suryadevara is looking to turn the automaker into a leaner, more agile company, dialing up the speed on much of the work that had been spearheaded by GM President Dan Ammann. Ammann, the former Wall Street banker who is leaving his post to head the company's Cruise autonomous-vehicle unit, was a linchpin in many of the major strategic moves made under Barra's tenure, including GM's exit from Europe.

The next phase of restructuring plans includes reshaping the automaker's vehicle lineup, slashing North American salaried head count by 15 percent and closing as many as seven factories globally, including four in the U.S. The moves are meant to, among other things, drive up GM's share price consistently, a goal that has eluded GM since its post-bankruptcy initial public stock offering eight years ago.

"That has to be a perennial frustration for the domestic automakers," said David Kudla, CEO of Mainstay Capital Management. "They are underloved and underowned."

Sense of urgency

The announced actions are expected to cut $6 billion in expenses by 2020. For a sense of the urgency driving this round, consider that in the previous round of cost cuts, GM took four years, 2015 to 2018, to cut $6.5 billion.

And for a sense of the difficulty of the task, consider that GM's shares initially rose 5 percent on news of the restructuring, only to give up those gains to political winds that drove the broader market sharply lower last week. The stock closed Friday, Dec. 7, at just less than $35, marginally up from the 2010 IPO price of $33.

With Ammann gone, Suryadevara will be Barra's new right hand in wooing the financial community. Barra, 56, will take direct responsibility for global regions and GM Financial — Ammann's two other responsibilities.

Suryadevara's outreach to Wall Street leaves Barra to deal with the political fallout of its decision to shutter plants and cut jobs, including heavy criticism from the UAW and Unifor in Canada, lawmakers from Michigan and Ohio and President Donald Trump. Barra spent two days in Washington last week meeting with lawmakers and seeking to quell the backlash.

That's not to say Suryadevara couldn't handle such pressure. GM insiders say she has proved herself a battle-tested leader.

'Natural progression'

Suryadevara rose to CFO on Sept. 1, a transition that Bank of America Merrill Lynch research analyst John Murphy has described as a "natural progression" rather than a "shock to the system."

"Dhivya is a very intelligent, hard-working person. She knows what she's talking about left, right and center," he said in June, when her appointment was announced. "Investors might not know her quite as well, so there might be some slight reservation, and she might need to get a little bit more public in her position."

Others, including those in the company, have described Suryadevara similarly: determined, self-motivated and direct in terms of communication and expectations.

"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," Barra said in a June statement.

Before becoming CFO, Suryadevara oversaw GM's balance sheet, including capital planning, capital market activities and worldwide banking, while managing GM's roughly $85 billion in pension assets.

She "played an integral role," according to the company, in last year's sale of Opel to PSA Group, GM's acquisition of Cruise Automation, the $500 million investment in Lyft and the $5 billion in investments in Cruise by SoftBank and Honda Motor Co.

In 2012, she was part of a small team that executed a unique transaction to slash about $29 billion from GM's pension burden by shifting some salaried retirees to a group annuity.

Suryadevara, a native of India who moved to the U.S. at age 22 to attend Harvard University, has attributed her drive to her mother.

"Her high expectations made us want to do better, and we learned that nothing comes easy," she said in a 2016 interview with Real Simple magazine. "You have to really work hard to get what you want."

You can reach Michael Wayland at mwayland@crain.com -- Follow Michael on Twitter: @MikeWayland

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