Tonit Calaway, 52
Executive Vice President, Chief Legal Officer and Secretary, BorgWarner
Location: Auburn Hills, Mich.
Education: B.A., economics and political science, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; J.D., University of Chicago
What drew you to the auto industry? Opportunity. I was at Harley-Davidson for 18 years. I needed a couple of things to flesh out my resume and my experience, and one was I needed to work for a truly global manufacturing company. The other is that I needed to work for a company that was acquisitive, so I could really learn M&A and divestitures. I had worked with someone at Harley who had experience in auto, and he said if you ever want to be a really good businessperson, you work in the automotive space. I took his word for it, and I’m really glad I did.
First automotive job: In 2016 as vice president and chief human resources officer at BorgWarner.
Big break: I’m what’s kind of known as a fixer. BorgWarner at that time had a “no” vote on their executive comp, Say on Pay. The executive comp piece was an opportunity to come in and provide some of the experience I had into helping fix that issue. Now, I wasn’t the one who did it alone. I had an amazing comp chair and board of directors, but I was helpful in doing that and brought some new ideas in the way we talk about our compensation philosophy in the proxy statement.
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What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? For me, I have just been very focused on what I want to do and what I want to be, so I just go for it and I don’t really think about things in terms of challenges. That’s not to say I haven’t had setbacks. If you ask me where my career is and how I’ve gotten here, it’s because of a lot of failure, frankly. But for me, it’s about how do you regroup and just move forward? So I can’t tell you I’ve had a lot of challenges. I can tell you I’ve screwed up a lot, and I’ve learned from the screwups, and I’ve worked with people to help me be better. But I don’t think of those as challenges. Those are the things that set your character and help you move forward if you embrace them.
You’ve been in the industry four years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? It is much more technology-driven than it was — the designs of the cars and the fact that they’re computers and the technology that goes into making the parts. I will be honest, I’ve been very surprised about how adaptable our work force is and how talented they are. It’s been a joy, but it’s been changing and it’s been changing relatively quickly.
Describe your leadership style. I want to empower my team to do their job. I’m not a micromanager. I think of my job as the person they come to when they need something. Give them what they need and then get out of their way to let them do their job. We’ve had a lot of success with that and really hiring incredible talent — talent that wants my job. I want someone to want my job.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? Humans are adaptable, No. 1. We keep working. We keep chugging. We’re survivalists. We can survive a lot. We’re tenacious. And I think the most important thing is that we need each other because a lot of people — even curmudgeons like I can be sometimes — find out that human touch, that human interaction, is super important.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? No. I have no regrets. If there’s any motto for me, it’s “If I die with having no regrets, I will have been successful.” Even the bad stuff was there for a reason, and I think it made me stronger. It made me a better person. It made me more empathetic to people. So, no, I would not change a thing, even my failures.
How do you bring your best self to work? I can’t do anything but be me. I am who I am. I don’t make any apologies for it. I don’t necessarily work in every environment. It works at BorgWarner. It may not work at some other company. I know people say “culture,” and I don’t know if it’s culture, but I definitely know the atmosphere in which you work, the people you work with, is important for your career. If you don’t have that, then leave because you’re never going to be able to be your best and you’re never going to be able to excel. And you own that. That’s not about the company. You’re not going to change the company. That’s about where do you fit and where can you come and be yourself?
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year, and what did you get out of it? I love poetry and very few people know that, and I collect rare books. I just got a first edition Sonnets from the Portuguese [by Elizabeth Barrett Browning]. It’s just beautiful prose. It’s just wonderful. The other one I got was a signed edition of East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
If there were 25 hours in a day, how would you spend your extra hour? I would be watching trash TV. It would be “Below Deck.” It would be “The Real Housewives of Atlanta, New York, Beverly Hills” — not New Jersey — or HGTV. I am a reality TV junkie.
— Audrey LaForest