What attracted you to the auto industry? When I was in high school, I watched Lee Iacocca on TV in the Chrysler commercials. I found him to be a really interesting, dynamic person. My dad worked for the industry — he was a tool-and-die maker — so I was connected to Detroit. I knew coming out of high school that I'd want to be involved in the auto industry.
First automotive job: I came into Chrysler in 1985 at Warren Truck Assembly in the budget department. Here I was coming out of Wayne State. I'm in a suit and I'm sitting in the middle of a plant. I think I was the only one with a suit on. I was there for just a year before I took a leave of absence to go to Ann Arbor [and get my MBA]. Then I came back on a leadership program and rotated through the finance organization for about 10 years.
Big break: As I was rotating through the finance organization, there was an opportunity in this very, very small group called Mergers & Acquisitions. There were four people, and I did some research. They weren't very active, but it was a promotion, so I took it. Within a couple weeks, I was driving to work and I heard that Daimler and Chrysler were merging. I'm thinking, "What the heck? I work in M&A and no one told me that?" Chrysler wasn't very active in the M&A world, but Daimler was quite active, and our group became responsible for all M&A activity in North and South America, not just for Chrysler, but for Mercedes, for the commercial vehicle business, for the financial services business. What really got us active in the M&A world was in about 2000. Chrysler was losing money so we started a process in business development of divesting noncore assets. We ended up, from probably 2000 to 2004, selling about $2 billion worth of assets. I got really close during that time with the Germans.
What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? Some of the most challenging and greatest stuff we've done in the last few years is the work we've done to localize Jeep [production] in China and Brazil [and] trying to do it in Russia.
Every time you're given an opportunity to take on more responsibility, it seems so glamorous and great, but it's just a piece of you that's lost forever — like you've committed another piece of you. I have three kids, and it's hard; you're constantly having to make choices and decisions and hoping that you're doing the right thing. I have a great husband. I met him when I was 14. We've been together for my whole life, and he really, truly believes — and I let him believe this — that in terms of our family life he takes on 50 percent of the responsibility. But he doesn't.
I think women are always allocated a disproportional amount of that responsibility. It's just something that you live with.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? There's a complete misconception about the auto industry. To people who don't know it, it feels very blue collar, very manufacturing based. People think you're working in a plant. They don't think about the opportunities that are here, from PR, communications, marketing, finance, IT, purchasing — every facet of what you may be studying in school is available in a company like this. Part of it is just educating people, and part of it with women is helping them understand that women have come before you, and have had families and raised kids and done that all successfully within this culture, particularly the culture at Fiat Chrysler. When I was having kids, I took extended leaves of absences.
Tell us about your family. My husband's name is David. My daughter, Abby, is 23. My son Jake is 21 and David is 15.
What do you do to relax? I watch reality TV, like the Kardashians. This is why it won't be a good thing for me to retire, because I'm going to become a complete couch potato. When I go home, I like to just make my mind stop working. I like to garden. I like to vacuum.
If I had it to do all over again ... I wouldn't do anything different. I love this company. I love these friendships that I have here. I love the cafeteria. I feel like I have had a career where, when I want to step back because I have to focus on family stuff, I've been able to do that. When I want to lean in because I have capacity to do that, I've been able to do that.
By Larry P. Vellequette