Investor says GM 'tone deaf' to give Barra CEO and chairman roles

General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra speaks during a keynote address at the 2016 CES trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Co's GM.N board should not have given Chief Executive Mary Barra the added role of board chairman and should instead keep the roles separate, the leader of an investor group that last year challenged GM's management over a different issue said on Wednesday.

“The whole trend is to separate those roles,” said Harry Wilson, who led a group of four hedge funds that put pressure on GM last year to return more cash to shareholders. Wilson spoke at a conference sponsored by Automotive News in Detroit.

Wilson said the role of board chairman “is a different job” from leading the company’s management as chief executive.

GM earlier this month said Barra would take over as board chairman, replacing Theodore “Tim” Solso, the former chairman and chief executive of Cummins Inc. Solso is now the lead independent director on GM’s board.

A GM spokesman responded to Wilson’s comments by pointing to a statement made by Solso at the time of Barra’s appointment as chairman.

Solso, in his statement, said: “The board concluded it is in the best interests of the company to combine the roles of Chair and CEO in order to drive the most efficient execution of our plan and vision for the future.”

Wilson praised GM’s performance under Barra during the past 18 months, and said he favors the automaker’s moves on Wednesday to expand a share buyback program originally agreed last March with the investor group that he led.

GM also said it plans to return to shareholders a total of $16 billion in the form of share buybacks and dividends from 2015 through 2017, extending and increasing the earlier plan to return $10 billion to shareholders in 2015 and 2016.

Reporting by Joe White; Editing by Leslie Adler