Ford Motor Co.
What attracted you to the auto industry? I always enjoyed playing with cars. I had Matchbox cars. I liked to open and close and to drive them. Ford's one of the larger employers in Cologne so we always were surrounded by a car factory. But we were also surrounded by Bayer - they do aspirin - and I wasn't attracted to that as a child. When I started to work at Ford I would have thought it to not be such a long career. It took me not long to find out that Ford was such a big, global company that you could do everything you would ever think of doing inside the company.
First automotive job: In 1978, I was a commercial apprentice, which was a very common German way of starting in the business life, before you go to university. Basically, you get vocational training as well as training on the job. I ended up with being initially an administrative assistant - organizing office work and doing translation. Obviously speaking a second language was a key qualification that I needed at the time. My English teacher at the time said to me, "Oh, Birgit, you're going to go far. I see you on the 12th floor." I think he meant as a secretary. He never meant as a vice president.
Big break: My first buying job. I was actually the second female buyer in Ford of Germany. Getting as far as that relatively early in my career and being basically, if you will, a pioneer, it was a great testimonial that Ford was not letting gender get in the way, that they value diversity and nurture key talent.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career? It was probably my first mentor. It wasn't a formal mentor. It was the person I worked for at the time when I was an admin, and I was thinking about going back to evening university and he really encouraged me because he saw something in me, just by the way that I was taking an interest in the business. It was that person that was the reason that I actually pulled through in evening university. It's nothing I recommend because it takes a lot of resilience and a lot of discipline. But I didn't want to disappoint that person who had encouraged me to go. Four years of evening school after a full-time job is something that has taught me a lot and prepared me for my future life.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? We need to start really, really early encouraging women to not just seek out the traditional careers. When I was starting my education, unfortunately, nobody encouraged me to seek out an engineering degree. A large degree of our resources and employees are in product development and manufacturing, so if you really want to benefit from the breadth of all the career possibilities that Ford can offer, then an engineering degree, plus an MBA, is probably the best way to allow that to happen and keep yourself flexible.
Tell us about your family. I have great support in my husband, Norbert. I'm here for the second time on an international service assignment, and he's happily joined me every time.
The rest of my family is in Germany.
What's your favorite weekend activity? I love boating. It's something that we adopted here in Michigan. I love the water. That's one way to relax over the weekend if we have the time. I love the outdoors. I used to ride a motorcycle, but not here. Your roads are not as nice as the roads in Germany. But your waterways are exceptionally nice. In the summer. I'm not so fond of your Michigan winters.
What's your guilty pleasure? I do enjoy going out for dinner. I love exploring great restaurants.
By Nick Bunkley