Kimberley Gardiner, 52
Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Mitsubishi Motors North America
Location: Franklin, Tenn.
Education: B.A., communications, Mills College; MBA, marketing, Indiana University
Note: Gardiner is scheduled to join VW on Nov. 16.
What drew you to the auto industry? I did environmental work prior to automotive. I did that for about eight years. And I was looking after graduate school to do something challenging and interesting that mattered. And I love cars. More importantly, I love that customer experience and the interactions that you get. And as a marketer, I think it’s a fascinating industry to work in. From [customer] awareness, to shopping, all the way through to buying, owning, doing it again. I came into it because I wanted to help make change. Because of my environmental background, I looked at Toyota and what they were doing with the Prius at the time.
First automotive job: I started as an MBA graduate management associate at Toyota back in 1999. Toyota recruited at my university for a rotational program.
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Big break: When I got the job at Kia as a director of marketing. For the first time, I was able to have enough breadth and depth at a job that was really challenging, really interesting. It was a time when Kia was looking to evolve the brand and try to overcome quality perceptions. I felt like I was in the right place at the right time with the right challenge.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? One of the hallmarks of establishing an upwardly mobile career, at least in sales and marketing, is having field experience. Being a single parent for a long time now, that was difficult. I did travel at the time, but I couldn’t do it every single week. You find other ways to be able to appreciate the dealer experience. Toyota and other companies I worked at are very good about making sure that you have other ways to get that proxy experience. I think it’s a challenge these days, although maybe with COVID and working remote that will open up more opportunities for women and single parents.
You’ve been in the industry 21 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? I truly love the fact that we have seen so many environmental impact improvements, across the board. Not only in fuel efficiency, but also materials used in cars, and of course with hybrid vehicles, which drew me to the industry in the first place. I worked with fuel cell cars briefly at Toyota, then launching new hybrid and EV cars at Kia, and now working with the plug-in hybrids at Mitsubishi. And knowing that more and more of that is coming — Tesla and Rivian and other brands like that.
What work achievement are you most proud of? I’ve been known as an action-oriented visionary, a change agent at all the brands where I’ve worked. At Toyota, that was really bringing digital into the mainstream, all the way down to the dealers. At Kia, it was going beyond just the practical [image] to emotional. And bringing that essence of what’s truly Korean into the brand. At Mitsubishi, it’s redefining a brand, getting our brand back on the map.
What do you struggle with? I struggle not to work, and not to think about work, and not to problem-solve in my own mind about the challenges I can help with at work. I can’t turn off my brain. It drives my daughter crazy because I’m not a very good role model for work-life balance.
Describe your leadership style. Forward-thinking. Challenging the status quo. Very inclusive. I’m not someone who will stand in front of a room and say, “I’m going to do this, and I want to make my mark” and all of that. I’m much more about how I motivate others to do awesome things. I love painting a vision that they can all help with, because that comes to me very naturally as a leader. But I also love it when people can be inspired their own way. That’s my version, I think, of inclusiveness, appreciating diverse talent.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? Resilience, patience. I think a new way of working — literally — which I think is great for automotive in particular as we struggle with change and evolving our business model, helping dealers differently, attracting new talent that may not all want to be in Detroit or Nashville or L.A., or wherever those opportunities have been. This opens up so many doors. I hope that that stays. I hope those things stay where we have a more open-minded definition and a broader definition of work.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? I would say three things: visibility, visibility, visibility. There just needs to be more of us, and we need to be more visible. Not only in our industry but outside. Virtual talks, panels, interviews, press releases. A lot of time it’s men that are quoted, that are on stage. Nothing wrong with that. But I think people want to work in companies and industries that look a little more like them, or are open to folks that are more like them.
— Laurence Iliff