Flavia De Veny, 51
Location: Farmington Hills, Mich.
Education: B.S., aerospace engineering, University of Maryland; M.S., mechanical engineering, Oakland University; MBA, University of Pennsylvania
What drew you to the auto industry? For my first automotive job, I interviewed at a Magna plant called Marada Industries that did stamping and roll forming. The thing that attracted me is that I had previously worked in engineering roles where you rarely make the product that you design. In automotive, everything you see comes to life. It’s real and it’s rewarding.
First automotive job: Program manager with Marada Industries in 1995.
Big break: During the founding of Martinrea. At the time, they had been founded less than a year earlier and they were only a build-to-print company. I knew where they wanted to head, because I knew the CEO, Fred Jaekel, whose direction I had worked under before at Magna. So I called the CEO and sold him my value proposition to take the company into design-responsible products and growth. The company evolved from a virtually unknown into a C$2.2 billion Tier 1 auto supplier within seven and a half years.
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What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Walking into a financially distressed company and not being a turnaround or restructuring expert. I learned quickly in hiring the best talent. I would say the kind with low egos, and yet extreme grit and relentless pursuit, allowed us to effectuate basically a wholesale organizational turnaround and positioning of the company for proven and profitable growth. We did that in 18 months.
You’ve been in the industry 25 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? The surprising change has really been about change. I remember when I first moved to Detroit, every car was a U.S. OEM made vehicle and there wasn’t a lot of diversity in the demographic of the auto industry workers. I’ve seen a tremendous change in the types of vehicles being sold. And in the fact that the auto industry now is being challenged by Silicon Valley and technology and that we’re going through a major transformation. It’s not just about the product, but it’s also about the type of people who are designing and building that product. The demographic is changing, and it’s changing in race and in male-female. It’s also changing in the talent base we’re looking for of more electrical and software engineers versus mechanical and manufacturing engineers. There is a massive shift going on right now because of the evolution of the car.
Describe your leadership style. I’m a big communicator, I overcommunicate, and I’m very collaborative. If and when there is a time that calls for it, and usually in an urgent situation like COVID, I can go command and control. Just so that we can get through that urgency and that there is direct leadership and we’re not waffling on decision-making and taking too much time to do that. Generally speaking, it’s a collaborative working style. My team knows that I like to work where not every person is going to agree all the time. It’s rare that people agree all the time, but what we do is we get everyone’s input. We get a majority decision. We all stand behind that decision. And we move forward, but we do it together.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t. We as human beings are always vulnerable. Good and true character come out in times of strife like this. And we humans always have a choice. We can choose to be victims or we can choose to work together and be owners.
Tell us about your family. My husband and I have been married 25 years. I am the youngest of three. I have two older brothers and I’m a first-generation American born of Italian immigrants.
Are you able to maintain friendships? Most definitely. I am choosy in that regard. But I think once in my circle, it’s hard to get rid of me. I have friends dating back to kindergarten and grade school that I still keep in close contact with. I am humbled to continue to have extraordinary people with, what I always say, are extraordinary stories that enter my life and become a permanent part of it.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year, and what did you get out of it? Man’s Search For Meaning, which was written by a Holocaust survivor. You learn as you get older and wiser that it really is about the simple things in life and I think we’re on this Earth to love and to be loved.
— Jack Walsworth