Susan Docherty, a longtime General Motors Co. executive who cut her teeth working midnights at one of the manufacturer’s transmission plants, will take over the auto maker’s U.S. sales operation.

Docherty, 46, currently serves as general manager of Buick-GMC. Effective Oct. 16, the appointment will place her among the highest-ranking women in the industry.

The Windsor, ON, Canada, native replaces Mark LaNeve, who leaves the auto maker to pursue interests outside the industry.

GM has not named a replacement for Docherty, but company President and CEO Fritz Henderson will seek a person from outside the corporation. The auto maker has taken some criticism in recent weeks for restructuring its leadership team with GM lifers.

“This will infuse new ideas and an outside perspective into our marketing efforts,” Henderson says in a statement issued late Wednesday announcing Docherty’s promotion.

During an update with reporters yesterday on GM’s progress in the 90 days since it exited bankruptcy, Henderson revealed the departure of LaNeve, a relatively well-liked executive among dealers who led an unsuccessful bid at stemming market share losses.

“Susan will bring a wealth of experience from previous marketing and sales assignments,” Henderson says. “I have confidence she will bring a new perspective to the position as she guides a new, lean and customer-focused dealer network.”

Known in the industry for her managerial confidence and keen sense of style, Docherty assumes the title of vice president-U.S. sales during the auto maker’s unprecedented slide in its home market.

During the worst recession in modern history, GM has posted a string of double-digit, monthly year-over-year sales declines dating back to February 2008.

According to Ward’s data, GM’s share of the U.S. market in September was 19.7%, compared with 22.5% in like-2008. Five years ago, the auto maker controlled nearly 30% of the U.S. light-vehicle market.

Docherty, an executive quick to seek feedback on GM’s products during discussions with journalists and consumers, also earns a seat on the company’s 9-member executive committee. As such, she will be the sole female on the board and becomes the highest-ranking woman at GM.

Docherty’s ties to the industry date back to her college years, when she worked the midnight shift at a GM transmission plant in her native Windsor to pay for tuition.

“I figured as long as I was working there, I might as well learn about the business,” she tells Ward’s during a recent media preview of the new-for-’10 GMC Terrain cross/utility vehicle.

Docherty joined GM in 1986 and has held a variety of positions, including brand manager for the Cadillac Escalade, a sales-and-service executive at GM Europe and various managerial posts at GM Canada.

Prior to taking over Pontiac-Buick-GMC last year, Docherty served as general manager for GM’s western region. Previously, she managed GM’s Hummer division, taking over the SUV unit after completing a Sloan Fellowship at Stanford University.

The move will place Docherty among the highest-ranking women employed by a Big Six auto maker. Others are:

  • Felicia Fields and Susan Cischke, group vice presidents, Ford Motor Co.
  • Tracey Doi, group vice president and chief financial officer, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
  • Josephine Cooper, group vice president, Toyota Motor North America Inc.
  • Dian Ogilvie, senior vice president, Toyota Motor North America Inc.