What attracted you to the auto industry? I had an internship with General Motors and was fascinated by the complexity of the auto industry. I hadn't been exposed previously. I thought I was on a track to go to med school and be a pediatrician when I started at Purdue.
First automotive job: The internship with General Motors in Anderson, Ind., in 1991 at Inland Fisher Guide. They produced headlamps, taillamps and bumpers, and I worked in the materials lab.
Big break: The recipe for me was in the culture of FCA/Chrysler, what we've been through the years, and the ability to be entrepreneurial, and if you saw opportunities to help the company grow or improve the bottom line, you could bring those forward and people would accept that as an opportunity for improvement and would give you ownership of it. It's exciting because you've been given the ability to have somewhat unlimited bounds, to go and make an impact within the company and change things. But the expectation is that you're going to deliver results on the proposal that you've put forward.
What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? Pre-bankruptcy, I had spent a lot of time on the technical side, doing the development of stability control and doing the development of driver assistance systems, blind spot, adaptive cruise, etc. When we came out, and I was put into the VLE (Vehicle Launch Executive) role, I had never had responsibility for a whole vehicle system program and responsibility to interface with quality and manufacturing and purchasing. Understanding all of that, I would say that was the most challenging and the most rewarding, to be given the opportunity to grow like that. But very much the responsibility is yours, and the demands were high because everybody was coming out of bankruptcy and it was all hands on deck and everybody had a lot to do.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career? My grandfather was salt-of-the-earth, as honest as you get, had a hard life. Being on a farm, you don't have a lot of neighbors, and we spent a lot of time together, and I learned a lot about right and wrong, how to do things, how to have a good work ethic.
I also learned how to do things mechanically — I learned how to shingle roofs, I learned how to plant gardens — that very hands-on work ethic definitely rubbed off.
And my parents also. My dad worked in the steel mills and we had the farm, so he had two jobs until he finally retired and we only had the farm. Mom was a girl who had grown up in the city of Chicago, met my dad, got married and became a farmer's wife and totally transitioned into that. She ran the house and drove the tractors, and you name it, she did it.
And now, most recently, my husband is my greatest influence. He keeps me balanced. He makes sure I have the right priorities in mind. He helps me relax when I get a little wound up about things. It's a godsend that he's here and available for me.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? We need to talk more about how high-tech the auto industry is. There is still the perception that the industry is very industrial and low-tech and very manual, and I don't think people understand how much technology goes into the industry. I also think they don't understand the diversity of careers.
I think it's also helpful to visit classrooms and serve as a role model and show — both to young women and young men — that women serve in leadership roles in these highly technical STEM areas.
Tell us about your family. My husband also works at Fiat Chrysler, on the manufacturing side. We have a daughter, 16, and a son, 14. They are active in basketball. Growing up in Indiana, I played my fair share of basketball, and my husband's a bit of a basketball junkie as well. It works for us.
What's your favorite weekend activity? They're usually loaded with kids' travel basketball games. We've gotten to know the parents of the kids on the other teams, so it's kind of social as well, but it's very demanding. If we're not doing that, it's doing home improvements.
What's your guilty pleasure? A good glass of red wine. I like Italian reds.
By Larry P. Vellequette