CEO, Original Equipment Suppliers Association
Location: Southfield, Mich.
Education: B.S., chemical engineering, Michigan Technological University; MBA, Harvard University
What drew you to the auto industry? I grew up in Dearborn, Mich., and my father worked for and retired from Ford. It was having an interest in it from a very young age.
First automotive job: I had just graduated from college and in 1983 I was a manufacturing development engineer at GM’s Fisher Body in Warren, working on the development of seat materials, both foam and fabric.
Big break: When I became a corporate officer for Visteon. That was a big change; it was difference in responsibility, a difference in thought process. It helped me understand, as I progressed in that role, a lot more about the corporate side of the business versus the development, engineering and customer service side.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? COVID and the pandemic has been the most unusual thing. There was no methodology established for how to deal with it within the industry. There was no playbook. There was nothing you could go to. We’d never shut down the industry before. We never had to implement the kind of safety protocols that we needed to implement across the industry. From a U.S./North American perspective, we had some experience from what happened in Asia and then in Europe. The industry was learning together at an incredibly rapid pace.
You’ve been in the industry 37 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? The speed at which the industry evolves. If you’d asked me 30-plus years ago, there was a certain speed that was understood or accepted. It is so different now. That evolution and the evolution and time frame of technology has been incredibly impactful.
What do you struggle with? One of the things I’ve had to learn over the years is how to confront conflict more directly, particularly individual conflict or constructive feedback. That just wasn’t something that I, at an early age, was comfortable doing. I’m not an expert at it, but I am very aware that I have to continually work on that.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? As an association leader, I had the opportunity to bring together both the supplier and OE communities to work on the overall safety protocols, and the positioning of the industry as we look forward. We would have conference calls and we would have every OE and multiple suppliers working together to come up with the best recommendations we could. To watch the industry come together like that, in my mind that really hadn’t happened before in that way.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? I would have loved to have lived and worked overseas for a period of time.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? What motivates [this generation] and what they look for in companies is very different than what motivated me at the time or others that are of a similar ilk. What we miss is really positioning our companies in terms of contributing to the greater good of society, whether that’s addressing issues like global climate challenges, or working much more on a local level and benefiting the local community. I see my children and others that are coming into the work force really desiring not just to have a work environment that allows them to excel, but they want to know that they’re contributing to the greater good. Companies need to put a value proposition together, have it out there and push that forward to enable and motivate people to be interested.
Are you able to achieve work-life balance? Over the years I would say I’ve evolved from “you have to work so many hours and then leave it at work and then come home and have home time.” For me now — and this has been an evolution — it is much more about integrating. If I need to do something for myself, my family, I recognize that I need to take that time and do that. In the meantime, I also need to make sure my work is getting done. We will see more adaptability and flexibility in work where it’s possible.
— Alexa St. John