What attracted you to the auto industry? The challenge of it. When I went to Kettering, it was 100 percent co-op. I was in high school and you had to have a sponsor to go to the school. I got an interview at General Motors, and at the time, it seemed as good as anything else. I was 18. I left the industry and worked for a consulting firm that served a lot of different industries, but I found that they significantly lacked the challenge of the automotive industry, so I came back because the business models just seemed so simplistic.
First automotive job: In 1989, I started my career at General Motors' Fort Wayne Assembly Plant as a co-op student.
Big break: I got to work on some projects that had some great leaders, and I got some visibility with those leaders. One in particular: I was working in our product development group on the Grand Cherokee, and Dan Knott was the head of Jeep. I had opportunities to face some challenges head on.
What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? Leading teams as we went through bankruptcy and keeping a sense of optimism. Just keeping that hope alive and keeping people's spirits engaged, even when you're having your own doubts, and doing that with real authenticity. I worked at that time at a call center, where suppliers could call, and that was a great growth experience because you were really talking to people who were concerned about their futures, particularly when they were at small companies. It was quite a growth experience.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career? I'll go back to the example of Dan Knott because the focus was very much: What is our value system, and what do we really believe in? Sometimes you have a process focus, where you just lay out this process and two plus two equals four. When you have a team focused on the sense of values, you still can get consistent decision making, but it provides for more of the flexibility that you need in this business, and you actually get a better outcome. Sometimes, when you get a little too programmatic, you can end up with an undesired outcome because people missed the underlying intent. And that's what has the tendency to sometimes break down relationships. But if you keep the values true and people know why they're doing what they're doing, they can move much more quickly and more consistently. That's something that I've taken to other jobs.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? We have to focus on more than just the product. I came back to the industry because of the challenge, and if you're somebody who likes really complex problems to solve, this is an amazing industry. It's a consumer product that has heavy government regulation, changing dynamics; it's very global; it's a complicated product. I think that there are some women who would be attracted based on that who maybe aren't into cars. What other industry can you go into that, if you have a sense of curiosity, you can learn so much every day? I've been here over 25 years, and my rate of learning hasn't changed since the first day I walked onto the plant floor and was just overwhelmed with all the parts and the vehicles heading down the line. I haven't lost any of that, but I don't go to car shows on weekends.
Tell us about your family. I am married, and I have two sons, aged 12 and 14. We call ourselves the upsidedown family because my husband gave up his career to stay with the kids. In our community, that's not typical. Even though you think things have evolved, it's not very typical. My husband has been home with the boys for a few years and was at the schools so often that the schools hired him. He runs a preschool in Clarkston called the Great Start Readiness Program.
What's your favorite weekend activity? On the weekends, we live on a lake, so we're either out on a boat with the kids, or we're at soccer games with other families. It's a whole other social network.
What's your guilty pleasure? I have a group of friends who work here, and periodically, we have our girls' night out. So it's away from work and away from my family. Anything that's away from my family is a little bit of a guilty pleasure. About once a month, we get together and have our night, with girl time of what we're struggling with at work or family or with the kids or whatever it is. It might be a form of group therapy. We just go to a local restaurant around here. There are four of us.
By Larry P. Vellequette