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Mary Barra, 51, has been named the new CEO at General Motors, first time a woman will hold the top job at a major automaker.

She takes over Jan. 15 from Dan Akerson. He's been CEO and chairman of the GM board since Sept. 1, 2010. Akerson, 65, said he accelerated the transition several months after his wife recdently was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer.

Barra is executive vice president of GM's global product development, purchasing and supply chain.

"I will leave with great satisfaction in what we have accomplished, great optimism over what is ahead and great pride that we are restoring General Motors as America's standard bearer in the global auto industry," Akerson said in a message to employees.