What attracted you to the auto industry? I enjoyed what my dad did. He was a plant manager. I always enjoyed the stories he would tell, and I thought it was exciting, with all the high pressure. I grew up in Virginia, and he worked in Chesapeake for Volvo Bus.
First automotive job: I was in manufacturing. I was a line supervisor in the plant in 1998. I was a materials supervisor, all shifts. I pretty much did any job in the plant that they would put me in, other than maintenance. We moved to Michigan and my dad went to work at Ford, but my first plant was Chrysler's Sterling Heights Assembly Plant.
Big break: I had the opportunity to work in an executive planner role, and it was for John Campi [then Chrysler purchasing chief]. It was during a very trying time in our industry — [heading into] bankruptcy. You had to deal a lot with a staff that was uncertain of our future. You had to deal with the politics of senior leadership, where the company was going. From that experience, I was able to land a senior manager job with a new leadership team.
What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? We've had a lot of changes within our company. I'm a hard worker, and I'm very passionate, so when you have that revolution or that change in leadership a lot, you have to show yourself again. You can't rely on, "Oh, they knew you back then, and you have that respect and trust." So you have to continuously earn it. With my old managers, I used to say that every day is an interview. That's been the constant challenge. You have to prove yourself by your hard work, by your ethics, by your passion and your skill because you don't know who your next leader will be or what the market will do.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career? I truly think it's taken a village to raise me as a leader. I almost think of what they did, instead of the who. I think about my boss in the past, Fred Solomon, and Dan Knott, that I learned how to run an organization with integrity, and thinking about what's best for the organization when it may be not what's best for you. And that may mean you may upset apple carts. I think of even Wendi [Gentry-Stuenkel]. She's been a friend to me when I have challenging moments here.
And I think of my team out there, and my dad. He gave me this little card on my first day in the plant that says, "Don't let those bastards get you down." I was so young and I had a work force of 80 people.
Those people have influenced my leadership style, as well as some of my other previous bosses. Those people have influenced me by showing me what not to do.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? It starts with people like me in the position, so people see that there are role models. People have children, they have a life, and they enjoy what they do. I do like working here. I think role models are important, but I also think that we need to get to the younger generation in the education system.
I really like what we're doing with the robotics clubs versus not just a sports society; really showing kids that engineering's cool. To really get them around our technology and our product is helpful. My daughter sees me in it, and she really thinks it's cool that mom works there and mom does this.
Tell us about your family. I have my husband, Lee, and my 5-year-old daughter, Reese, and my 9-year-old son, Jack.
What's your favorite weekend activity? I love going up north in Michigan. We go to Higgins Lake, to Traverse City, to the Upper Peninsula. I really love it up there. Coming from Virginia, I love our lakes and the activities we have here. I always feel safe because there's nothing that could bite and kill me. We don't have sharks; there's no poisonous spiders that can get you or tigers or whatever. I feel safe.
What keeps you up at night? It's not work; it's more of my children's futures, to ensure that they're hard workers. I want to instill in them a strong character and a good work ethic.
Name one thing about yourself that most people don't know. Most people don't know that I'm a Sunday school teacher because it doesn't really fit my persona that I have here at work.
By Larry P. Vellequette