Denise Gray, 57
President, LG Chem Michigan
Location: Troy, Mich.
Education: B.S., electrical engineering, General Motors Institute; M.S., engineering management of technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
What drew you to the auto industry? Two things: my interest in science, math and technology, and I lived in Detroit. And in Detroit, most of the people I knew worked for General Motors or Chrysler.
First automotive job: Co-op student at the General Motors Tech Center in 1981 supporting the plant infrastructure, engineering and manufacturing teams.
Big break: Moving into powertrain software engineering at General Motors.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? When I was single and newly out of college, my first big decision point was: Was the company I was working for the right company? I questioned whether it was the right company to use my skills. After my first year of employment, the economy was suffering; I think we might have been in a recession at that point, and General Motors was going through a head count reduction. I had to make a decision. Was I at the right company in the right field? I knew I wanted to pursue automotive engineering. I had to make that decision based on the recession.
You’ve been in the industry 39 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? Introduction of electrified powertrains. That’s huge. When you go to a battery-electric vehicle, it represents a 180-degree difference from when I started my career and what’s underneath the skin of a vehicle.
What work achievement are you most proud of? It has to be the Chevy Volt. The [2005-13] Chevrolet Corvette is my second. Before I worked on the Volt, I worked on many programs that involved the Corvette. At the time, GM used the Corvette as the vehicle to introduce new technology. All of my efforts went into the Corvette. Then I moved to the Volt. When I see a Volt or a Corvette going down the road, I think: “That’s mine.” Those are my babies.
What do you struggle with? Time and wanting to get everything done to perfection. I never thought of myself as a perfectionist, but I have very high expectations of the product I am working on, of the people I am working with and of the community that I live in. Settling for less is what I struggle with.
Describe your leadership style. I’m very collaborative. I recognized a long time ago that I am not the smartest person in the room and that not one person can solve it or know all the ins and outs. It requires a team with experts to put all the issues and topics on the table. I would also say, passionate. Whatever I do, I put everything into it.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? In a time of crisis, leaders lead. In my own organization, I have been able to pick out those who are ready to step up and who have been innovative on how we can get things done in spite of our circumstances. I feel like everything we do in life is getting us prepared for those moments in crisis, and when it happens, leaders lead.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? We have to show girls and young women that there is a place for them. I feel that what many people see when they think of the auto industry is a male with a wrench in his hand. We have to do a better job of exposing people — not just women, but all people — to what skill sets it really takes — the ingenuity, the innovation, the foresight — what it takes to be in automotive, and what it can bring.
How do you bring your best self to work? I learned this a long time ago from former General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner. He said: “In order to be confident in what you are doing, you need to prepare.” That really struck a chord in me and is really a foundation on how I find the best Denise. When I am prepared on a topic, I am completely engaged, completely in, and I can have the maximum influence.
Tell us about your family. I am so blessed. I have been married for 33 years. My husband and I both went to the same high school, same college and worked at the same company, General Motors. He retired from GM as a mechanical engineer. We have two sons, and both went into technology. Both work for companies that are delivering products to the automotive industry.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year, and what did you get out of it? The Bible. I get new learnings every time I spend time there.
If there were 25 hours in a day, how would you spend your extra hour? Writing personal notes to family and friends to encourage them.
— Richard Truett