Today's 30-somethings, tomorrow's Iacoccas

When a 30-something gets a critically important executive position usually entrusted to a 50-something, well, Automotive News pays close attention.

That's because -- late bloomers aside -- these are the young titans who tend to climb to the upper echelons of their companies.

Take Mark Fields, who at 38 became the youngest-ever chief executive of a major Japanese automaker when his bosses at Ford Motor Co. made him president of Mazda. Today, Fields is Ford's COO and presumed heir to CEO Alan Mulally.

Rick Wagoner was 39 when he was called back from an assignment in Brazil and named General Motors' CFO. It was an astonishing level for someone of that age at that time in GM's history, and it put him on a path to become CEO.

Dieter Zetsche was given Daimler's Freightliner subsidiary to run at 36. Before turning 40 he was Mercedes-Benz's top global product development executive. Today Zetsche is Daimler's CEO.

At 29, Joe Hinrichs was GM's youngest plant manager, spearheading an out-of-the-box turnaround of an inefficient GM Powertrain plant in Fredericksburg, Va., and getting written up in a Harvard Business School case study. He is now Ford's North American chief.

Yes, they were prodigies, as was 36-year-old Lee Iacocca, the youngest vice president in Ford Motor history when he took charge of the Ford Division in 1960. A healthy industry needs their kind -- lots of them -- in the pipeline.

In this issue, we profile 40 young managers and technical wizards from automakers and suppliers who are on the rise, perhaps on their own paths to glory.

Of course, "young" is a relative term. In tech industry hubs such as Cupertino or Mountain View, Calif., executives in their late thirties are graybeards. In Detroit and other automotive capitals, a 39-year-old is a hatchling.

The industry's current crop of early achievers tends to be riding the crest of the industry's digital revolution. Executive headhunter Steve Parkford says the group is far more technically oriented than the young stars of the 1980s and 1990s.

"Those guys were clueless," says Parkford, principal of Parkford & Associates in Long Beach, Calif. "And they didn't care -- it was the car business."

These days the center console is a hotbed of young talent.

Sandeep Punater, Delphi's North American engineering director of electronic controls, got his big break in 2000 when asked to develop sensors for a collision warning system for a German automaker.

James Grace, Panasonic's 33-year-old director of advanced automotive engineering, is dreaming up the infotainment controls for vehicles that might be launched over the next three to five years.

Aamir Ahmed, a 30-year-old marketing whiz at Chrysler, has helped transform Chrysler's Uconnect infotainment system into a must-have component.

"They are definitely more tech-oriented," said Anne Belec, executive director of Russell Reynolds Associates' automotive practice and a former Ford executive. "It's almost a requirement now; you have to be much more nimble in terms of improvising.

"The industry is such a fast-paced environment. We said that 20 years ago, but it is truer than ever. So many different areas are converging. You are not just an engineer or a salesperson. You have to be a digital person."

If the industry lost some allure for young Americans in the past 20 years or so, it has remained plenty glamorous around the world. Some young executives on our list grew up in Shanghai, Sarajevo and Prague, many of them dreaming about American cars.

Kemal Curic, designer of the 2015 Mustang, lived in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina until he was 12. Filip Brabac, head of product planning at Audi of America, grew up in Czechoslovakia reading American car buff magazines.

Minyang Jiang, the 29-year-old brand manager for the Ford Transit, Transit Connect and E series, was born in Shanghai and moved to New York City when she was 9. Rana Mohtadi, one of the Toyota Technical Center's leading battery researchers, is from Jordan.

The current breed of rising stars is different in another respect. The old corporate loyalty is gone, Parkford says. There is no guarantee these smart young executives will stick with the car industry.

"Today they are less inclined to be corporate soldiers, to move anywhere they are told to," he says.

Partly it's because of those different backgrounds.

"There is less of 'My Dad was in the business his whole life,'" says Parkford. "That was unlike every other industry. If you look at most industries, they go from one company to another or even one industry to another. You didn't see that in automotive. You were in and you were in for life."

Belec figures the reduced loyalty reflects the convergence of so many technologies. "There is a much more complex multitude of experiences," she says, "so they jump more from company to company."

In the aftermath of the industry crisis, some worry that carmakers and suppliers do not have quite enough of these ultratalented up-and-comers.

"Headhunters are being asked, 'Can you get me young, educated, smart people," says Parkford, "but they are hard to find."

Belec says that's a natural outcome of the industry contraction that occurred during the recession.

"There was an exodus of young talent," she says. "The challenge for automakers is to develop internally fast enough, but I think OEMs need to look outside to a much greater degree.

"The auto industry has something for everyone, there is so much that is happening at the cutting edge," she says. "But it's not just attracting them, it's retaining them."



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