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Departure of GM CFO Dhivya Suryadevara highlights ongoing ‘brain drain’ problem for auto industry

Dhivya Suryadevara, former Chief Financial Officer of GM, named new Stripe CFO.

Source: GM

DETROIT – The departure of General Motors CFO Dhivya Suryadevara to digital payments company Stripe wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s just not how things are traditionally done in the Motor City.

Take her predecessor, Chuck Stevens, who spent 40 years with the automaker. Across town at Ford Motor, former CFO Bob Shanks retired last year after a 42-year career. His predecessor had a 34-year career at Ford.

It was a decision that shocked Wall Street and the auto industry. But times are changing and Suryadevara, who rocketed through the company’s ranks to become its first female CFO in 2018, is different. The 41-year-old is young but has already accomplished more in the auto industry in her roughly 15-year career at GM than many could imagine in their lifetime.

Her departure, effective Aug. 31, highlights a major concern for “traditional” automakers such as GM and Ford: talent acquisition and retention. As the automotive and tech sectors have collided in the past decade with the rise of connected, electric and autonomous vehicles, the competitive landscape for top talent has increasingly become more challenging.

“The tech sector has that opportunity to appeal to someone who wants to grow, wants to build something new and it’s a bit more difficult for the automotive industry to certainly have that same flavor and appeal from a career point of view,” Brad Marion, senior partner and global automotive sector lead for organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry.

GM “lifers,” a term used for those who spend their entire careers at the automaker, are becoming less prevalent.

‘Biggest challenge’

Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas this week called the competition for talent, or “brain drain,” the “biggest challenge facing” the Detroit automakers.

“While we did not anticipate this departure, we have published on our concerns about the ability of legacy auto makers to retain top talent and to attract it,” he wrote Tuesday in an investor note. Jonas cited a problem with the companies being “infused with environmental liabilities” in relation to internal combustion engines.

According to a report last month from employer-branding company Universum, the most attractive automaker to work for based on a survey involving nearly 53,000 students is Tesla, a company that exclusively produces zero emission electric vehicles.

Among all companies, Tesla ranked eighth in the survey behind Google, Apple, Walt Disney, Amazon, Nike, J.P. Morgan and Netflix.  Among engineering students, while slightly improved from a year ago, Ford ranked 12th and GM was 15th.

“The window for legacy (automakers) to bring in top engineering talent is still open,” Jonas wrote in a previous investor note involving the Universum study. “But for how long?”

Auto companies have been poaching top talent from tech firms. Ford lured CFO Tim Stone, a veteran of Amazon, away from Snap. GM tapped Alan Wexler, former CEO and chairman of digital business firm Publicis Sapient, to run innovation and growth.

“The tech sector is investing and trying to figure out this automotive industry, just like automotive is trying to behave and figure out the tech sector,” Marion said. “It facilitates the exchange of talent across those boundaries in a more fluid way.”

Marion expects mid-career talent who have transferable skills such as Suryadevara to be the most at risk for leaving the automotive industry in the foreseeable future. He said they have “career runway” and the automotive industry is expected to remain an unstable environment in the coming years due to the coronavirus pandemic and its cyclical nature.

‘Mixed emotions’

Suryadevara said it was with “mixed emotions” she was announcing her departure from GM, calling it a “very difficult decision.” While not giving a specific reason for her decision, she said she was “excited” to join Stripe amid a “pivotal” time for the San Francisco-based company.

“Stripe’s mission to increase the GDP of the internet is more important now than ever,” Suryadevara, who GM said was unavailable for an interview, wrote on LinkedIn.

Stripe, a private company, didn’t disclose details of Suryadevara’s benefits package as its CFO. At GM, her total compensation was about $6.8 million in 2019, only trailing GM CEO and Chairman Mary Barra and GM President Mark Reuss. 

Marion said Suryadevara “absolutely epitomizes” some of the top talent the auto industry has to offer. Jonas said she “was highly regarded by investors and, in our opinion, is a material talent loss to GM at a sensitive time in the company’s history.”

Before becoming CFO and leading the automaker’s finances through a gauntlet of tumultuous times – multibillion restructuring, 40-day strike and global pandemic – 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.

GM has said she also played an integral role in GM’s sale of its European operations to French automaker PSA Group and other high-profile actions such as its acquisition of Cruise Automation and $5 billion in investments in Cruise by SoftBank and Honda Motor.

“Dhivya has been a transformational leader in her tenure as CFO,” Barra said in a release Tuesday announcing her departure. “She has helped the company strengthen our balance sheet, improve our cost structure, focus on cash generation and drive the right investments for our future. We wish her every success.”

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