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Darlene Knight

Johnson Controls

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Group Vice President and General Manager, Complete Seat Americas, Johnson Controls
Plymouth, Mich.
Age: 49
Education: B.S., industrial administration, General Motors Institute; M.S., engineering science, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

What attracted you to the auto industry? I was following in my father's footsteps. He worked at the GM plant in Wilmington, Del. I started working there when I was 18 and then had the opportunity to go to GMI.

First automotive job: At the Wilmington assembly plant when I was a GMI student in 1984. My first assignment was on the receiving dock, receiving material and documenting truckloads. My first [full-time] job was in industrial engineering at the Wilmington plant, doing CAD layouts, time studies. We were just learning about synchronous manufacturing at the time. Nobody knew what it was. That was the start of lean manufacturing.

Big break: When I was promoted to president of North America at Edscha (a supplier of body hardware and convertible tops). That was a big break because it was a leadership position outside of operations, and most of my career had been in engineering and operations up to then. This was something that gave me broader responsibility, P&L responsibility.

What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? At Edscha, when I was president of North America, we went through a bankruptcy during the downturn. The parent company was in Germany, and under the bankruptcy laws, they put a wall around all the EU companies. So I was by myself. I had no money in the bank account. I didn't even have enough money to make it through payroll the next week. So I gathered a team of lawyers and consultants who knew what to do, and we got through it. It ended up being a Chapter 7, but we never shut down a customer, we got through it, everything was orderly. I had to use every tool in my toolbox, and near the end, I started working at a company outside the auto industry.

What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? We should treat women just like we treat men. Women are looking for the same thing from their careers as men. We're all looking for challenging opportunities, promotion opportunities. People throw balance out there with women, but I think men are looking for work-family balance. I think women would stay more if we truly embrace a culture of diversity. Not just bringing women in and putting them in separate jobs. Or expecting women to be just like a man — dress like a man, no flowers on your desk, don't paint your fingernails. It has to be: Bring people in and let them be truly who they are.

Tell us about your family. I married my college sweetheart. We've been married 26 years. Right now, we have two Chihuahuas, Castro and Zina. We live in Birmingham, and we're both runners. I try to run every day, if I can. I run for me. I don't want to compete for time. I do it to relieve pressure.

What's your favorite weekend activity? I love snow skiing — I didn't discover that till I was 40!

Name one thing about yourself that most people don't know. My college roommate, my BFF, is also being awarded [as one of the 100 Leading Women]. Pamela Fletcher. She's at GM. We've been friends forever.

When and where was your last vacation? Virginia Beach, in August.

By Neal E. Boudette

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