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Kristen Tabar

Toyota Motor North America

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Vice President, Toyota Technical Center, Toyota Motor North America
Canton, Mich.
Age: 45
Education: B.S., electrical engineering, University of Michigan

What attracted you to the auto industry? The industry represents a unique opportunity to think of an idea and actually see it made and used every day, with a really short turnaround time. It is a very satisfying cycle.

First automotive job: It was here at Toyota in 1992. I worked on the audio system, the speaker, antenna and radios.

Big break: Early in my career, I moved over from audio to telematics, and that was when telematics was still emerging on the vehicle. Mostly only high-end luxury brands were getting into it and Toyota wanted to make telematics more accessible to the mass market. We created this big working team between engineering, sales and marketing. We developed the concept that is still in use today. We sourced all new partners and got out in front of the technology and stretched what the vehicle could accomplish. For me, that project was the first opportunity to work outside of the tech center across affiliates and internal divisions.

What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? Our recall crisis was a huge challenge for us as a company and for me personally. I took a big role as our U.S. technical window. It was quite chaotic. We had to grow a lot as a company and understand and reflect a lot on the basic premises of Toyota. And really understand how to look at what we had done and look at it from a customer's perspective. My challenge was in thinking how we approached our work differently and how consumers approached our products differently. It was important to have that mindset realignment. It was difficult to break through some of the normal processes and practices we had.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career? Maasaki Murata, my first supervisor at Toyota. He was a strong mentor and a good teacher. I find myself quoting him even today. He had a lot of philosophy about work that I think still is really true. He always emphasized that work is hard and that is why it is called work and not vacation. However, when it is not fun, it is time to be done. He was always trying to see the positive part of work and trying to focus on the interesting problem-solving: How can we create something unique and that solves a problem customers didn't even know that they had. That way of thinking influenced me and continues to. It is how I operate and how I encourage my teams to operate.

What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? First, we need to do a better job encouraging everyone to join the auto industry. We have a lot of competition for engineering talent. In the United States there are a lot of industries trying to get a lot of strong technology-based people for a variety of reasons. Automotive, in general, doesn't hold quite the prestige as when I graduated. I think we need to do a lot of work explaining to people the benefits of the auto industry. Second, women have a different perspective compared with their male counterparts. And that's what the industry needs.

Tell us about your family. My family worked in the chemical and service industries. I have been married for 20 years. My husband also works in the industry, for a supplier. I have three daughters, 16, 13 and 10 — so I am doing my part to increase the number of women engineers. I am trying to encourage them to get into the field. I think I am succeeding.

What's your favorite weekend activity? I am a tiny bit of a college football fanatic. I went to the University of Michigan, and we have had season tickets ever since I graduated. It's a whole family affair — parents, siblings, kids. We have a group of about 50 that we tailgate with early morning to late night every Saturday, home or away. It's a really nice way to kind of have some downtime with the kids. We call it day camping.

Are you able to maintain friendships? Yes. I am really lucky. I do have quite a good network of friends. But it is challenging. The demands of automotive are high pace, high urgency, but it is important to have that time.

What's your guilty pleasure? Travel. I really enjoy traveling with my family. We love to go places, even short trips as a family. Probably our biggest guilty pleasure is Disney World. We try to make it there two or three times a year.

By Richard Truett

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