AI Online


Renaissance Man

Gary Cowger has dedicated his career to restoring General Motors to its former glory.


Gary Cowger
2004 Executive of the Year

Gary Cowger got his first taste of automobile manufacturing as an 18-year old General Motors Institute (GMI) co-op student, working at the Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac assembly plant in his hometown of Kansas City, Kan. “I was hanging doors and bolting seats when I started,” Cowger says.

“I’ll tell you one of the things that was interesting to me,” he continues, “is that when you bolted seats, you knew when you got off and you stripped a bolt.” Cowger says that being young, na?ve and anxious to please, when he’d stripped a bolt he would write out a repair ticket. “Well, I got my butt chewed out for doing somebody else’s job,” Cowger says.

The supervisor told him that there was an inspector stationed down the line whose job it was to check the bolts. Cowger smiles and says, “I had never seen him reach in there and check a bolt.”

He can now look back on that incident as the one that helped form his opinions about what needed to be done to change the company’s focus on manufacturing. Cowger agrees that starting his career on the assembly line has proved to be an asset.

“I always thought it was really good,” Cowger says. “It makes you understand what people out there are going through and what the issues are.”

While the industry’s leaders always fall into either the ‘bean counter’ or ‘car guy’ column, Cowger has made his mark as a ‘manufacturing guy.’

He honed his manufacturing skills at the Kansas City plant, rising from the shop floor to plant superintendent. It was also his expertise in manufacturing that would fuel his rise to GM’s executive suites (some promotions coming in less than a year).

Armed with a Bachelors Degree in industrial engineering from GMI and a Masters of Science degree from MIT, he left Kansas City in 1979 for the general superintendent’s job at the Lansing, Mich., assembly plant, part of the Oldsmobile division. Only 18 months later he took the job of production manager at the GM Assembly Division (GMAD) in St. Louis, Mo. He was appointed plant manager of GMAD’s Wentzville, Mo., assembly plant in 1982 where he was responsible for the building, staffing and start-up of the new assembly plant. From there he became the complex manager of the Lordstown, Ohio, assembly and stamping facilities.

In 1987, he was named manufacturing manager of the Cadillac Motor Division where he was instrumental in helping Cadillac grab the coveted Malcolm Baldrige Award for Quality. In 1990, he became executive director of advanced manufacturing engineering for the Advanced Engineering Staff at the GM Technical Center in Warren, Mich.

Three years later he was appointed executive-in-charge of the North American Operations (NAO) Manufacturing Center and then named president and managing director of General Motors de M?xico the following year where he became somewhat of a folk hero to the locals, being the first GM executive to learn their language.

Cowger, who starts off every day with a four-mile run, carried the Olympic Torch through Detroit in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“I thought it was important to learn the language,” says Cowger. “I was trying to do the same thing at Opel, except German was a lot harder to learn than Spanish.”

He took on the job of VP of European manufacturing for GM in January of 1998 and became group VP of labor relations in November of that year. In January of 2001, he was named group VP in charge of manufacturing and labor relations and took on his current responsibilities as president of GM North America in November of that year.

It was just before Cowger left for Mexico, while still in charge of NAO, that then GM Chairman Jack Smith asked him to begin a program that would centralize the manufacturing groups.

That program, and the lessons learned from the Toyota NUMMI joint venture laid the foundation for what would become GM’s Global Manufacturing System (GMS). While the early stages of the program showed positive results, Cowger says that GMS didn’t realize its true potential until later in 2001.

The GM Global Manufacturing System has its roots in the Toyota Manufacturing System, but has been customized to fit GM. It standardizes manufacturing processes in every GM facility around the world but, most importantly, GMS is built around people and the philosophy that everyone, in every position, has something to offer.

Layouts and processes are designed around providing support for the operators and teams on the plant floor. GMS cuts out waste, with the end result being a better quality product built in much less time.

Cowger credits GMS with the company’s quality comeback. But GM can also give Cowger credit for having an innate ability to sell the concept to a company that resisted change, often pitting management against union to the detriment of both.

He praised the union’s involvement in the resurrection of GM in his speech to the attendees of the 2003 Traverse City Management Briefings.

“It’s amazing what happens when you give people the respect and support they deserve,” Cowger said. “We saw attitudes change from ‘can’t do’ to ‘can do’ … and then to… ‘We can do even better than that.’”

GMS is showing measurable results. In the last several years assembly and powertrain plants consistently rank high in both J.D. Power surveys and The Harbour Report, and GM products are doing the same, taking number one spots in the J.D. Power initial quality surveys and finding their way onto Consumer Report’s recommended buy lists.

With the system fully in place, Cowger can now measure every plant globally on its implementation of GMS, knowing exactly where it is metric-wise.

“I feel really good about manufacturing plants, stamping plants and engine plants,” says Cowger. “What we’ve done recently is to take the system and start driving it into all of GM.” Cowger says that there was a misconception that GMS would only work for repeatable kind of assembly work.

“Anywhere work is done,” he says, “inefficiency has crept in and there’s waste. What GMS makes you do is process map what you’re trying to get done, whether you do it once a day or once a year or once a decade and we’re just driving waste out of the system.”

GMS was instrumental in consolidating all of the engineering functions into the one building at GM’s Warren, Mich., Tech Center and ridding the corporation of the costly redundancy created by having separate engineering departments for each marque.

Cowger says that the development of the Kappa platform, the basis for the production version of the Pontiac Solstice, was a direct result of GMS.

“What you see with Kappa is this kind of culmination,” says Cowger. “Because we are down to one engineering and one manufacturing group, we don’t have knowledge here that no one over there knows about. All this knowledge is now funneled down into one area.”

Kappa is constructed from GM’s global parts inventory, choosing already-validated technology to piece together the finished product and using the latest production techniques.

“If you look at Kappa,” Cowger says, “all of the techniques already exist in one place or another.” Hydroformed frame rails are already used in a lot of products and superplastic and bladderformed panels aren’t new either. Cowger adds that the basis for Kappa’s structure can be found in the Corvette frame.

“The beauty of (Kappa) was the integration,” Cowger says, “because everybody knew where to go get it. I don’t think there’s much invention really.”

Kappa will drive more product derivatives. A Saturn two-seat roadster is planned and GM is currently showing Kappa-based concepts for Vauxhall, Chevy and Hummer.

 Cowger (right) and Bob Lutz, vice chairman, product development and chairman, GM North America, use a hands-on approach to drive quality into manufacturing, design and engineering.
The man who is credited with much of GM’s dramatic improvement in quality, is keeping the hammer down, instilling a hands-on approach that finds him and Robert Lutz, product development and chairman of GM North America, meeting once a week to go through every detail of every product development process for every product. He says that in a month’s period of time they can cover the entire product portfolio, going into excruciating detail.

Every other Friday suppliers are brought in and all of the cars currently in launch are reviewed, paying special attention to interiors, exteriors, fit and finish, materials, execution and tactile feel.

Cowger says that the intent of these meetings is to drive a Toyota-like level of detail into the entire organization including the supply chain, and he says the good news is that it’s getting better.

“These meetings were pretty brutal two years ago,” Cowger says.

These days Cowger’s office, like his life, is awash in product. Miniature Corvettes, SSRs and Hummers are parked on the shelves, crowding out his manufacturing awards. Cowger was honored with the Hien-Ming Wu Foundation Leadership Award in 2001 and last year he received the Manufacturing Leadership Award from the Society of Automotive Engineers.

While he hasn’t backed off on his push for quality design and manufacturing, he has also turned his attention to selling GM’s quality products — the biggest challenge being to draw back those customers who defected to the foreign transplants.

GM will launch 29 new or significantly refreshed products in 2004, following the 16 new vehicles that found their way to GM showrooms in 2003.

Cowger says that the answer to winning back customers is to get people behind the wheel. Last summer GM initiated the 24-Hour Test Drive program and Cowger says that to date just over half-a-million overnight test drives resulted in 170,000 sales.

GM is also conducting an auto show in motion where potential customers in 10 major metropolitan areas can take comparison drives with both GM and competitors products. “In that case, we’re able to give kind of a survey of people’s opinions and attitudes about our quality and product going into and coming out of,” says Cowger. “It’s a huge difference.” GM recently launched “Hot Button,” a vehicle giveaway program designed to draw customers into GM showrooms and also demonstrate the benefits of OnStar.

GM was lambasted in the press for last summer’s “Road to Redemption” campaign where they admitted that past GM vehicles were lacking in quality.

“Yeah, but it was great negative press,” Cowger says. “The good news was that everybody admitted ‘well of course we know your quality’s improved dramatically. That’s not a bad thing to write is it?’”

Automotive analysts have predicted that 2004 will be yet another year where the domestic automakers would see their market share dwindle. Cowger doesn’t like to see GM being lumped in with the rest of the industry. “Okay, let’s look at what’s happened at General Motors, not domestic motors,” Cowger says. “We gained share in 2001, and 2002, two years in a row, the first time we’ve done that since 1976.”

Cowger was hoping for a three-peat in 2003, but confesses that GM got off to a slow start at the beginning of the year, ending up 51,000 units short of reaching its goal, finishing the year with a 28.1 percent share of market instead of the predicted 28.3 percent. Cowger is optimistic that 2004 will be a good year for GM, noting that in the last six months of 2003 market share ran 28.7 percent and hit as much as 30 percent in November and December.

“All of our new product, the high volume stuff, (Chevrolet) Malibu, Malibu Maxx, Aveo, Colorado, (GMC) Canyon, (Pontiac) GTO and (Cadillac) SRX, launched in the third and fourth quarter, so we really didn’t see that volume effect until the end of the year.”

The good news is that a lot of that product was selling without the record incentives that have been dragging down profits.

“In fact,” Cowger says, “if you’ve looked at our incentives over the third and fourth quarter (of 2003) you’ve not seen the year over year increases that you saw previously.”

What’s Next?

Now that Cadillac is on a roll with a new crossover SUV and a two-seat roadster added to an already strong lineup that will add a new STS sedan coming this fall, Cowger has set his sights on doing the same for GM’s other North American brands.

“Basically, what we did with Cadillac is repeatable for every brand.”

Chevrolet will launch 10 new cars and trucks during the next 20 months and an Epsilonbased Pontiac G6 sedan and coupe will join a new Grand Prix and Australian-built GTO. Cowger is hopeful that the revitalized GTO resonates with the buying public. He says that if the planned 18,000 to 20,000 units sell, then GM would most likely bring that platform in house to do the next generation GTO and other rear drive derivatives.

Cowger announced in January, at the L.A. auto show, that Saturn will add another three products to the lineup in the next two to three years. Along with the Relay crossover utility van (CUV) that goes on sale this fall, Saturn also gets an Epsilon-based replacement for the poor-selling L-Series and the aforementioned two-seat roadster.

Buick will get a version of the CUV called the Terazza and the public got its first glimpse of the Buick LaCrosse (the Regal replacement) at the Chicago auto show in February. “Help’s on the way for Buick,” Cowger says. “We’ve got much more to talk about at Buick, but it’s a little too far out right now.”

A Respected Colleague

Cowger ‘dream cruises’ down Woodward Avenue with UAW Vice President Richard Shoemaker in a Cadillac XLR.
Cowger’s down-to-earth demeanor has made an impression on those who work with him. Richard Shoemaker, United Auto Workers vice president and director of General Motors, the man who sits across the table from Cowger during contract negotiations, calls Cowger: “One of the most competent people that I’ve met in the industry. He’s competent in many ways. He understands manufacturing, he’s a car guy and he has a good feel for the product. He knows the industry. Beyond that, he’s got great people skills and communicates very well.”

Rick Wagoner, chairman and CEO, General Motors Corporation says of Cowger: “Gary has a great combination of capability, energy and experience. He has achieved excellent results in all of his wide-ranging General Motors’ assignments — whether on the plant floor, in central offices, or in leading businesses in Mexico, Europe and now here in North America.

“Equally important, Gary has great people skills in addition to his technical and business capabilities. He knows how to build relationships, and how to bring out the best in people — whether individually or through teams. He is well-deserving of this prestigious award.” And as GM Vice Chairman, Product Development and Chairman, GM North America Bob Lutz exclaims, “Gary Cowger is a complete automotive executive, trained and honed his whole life for what he is now doing: leading one of the world’s largest automotive entities, GMNA. Although his special expertise lies in manufacturing, his instincts in marketing and product are outstanding. He represents a unique synthesis of drive, discipline, knowledge, gut-feel, humor and compassion. No one could ask for a better partner.”

From an 18-year-old factory worker who already saw the necessity for a system like GMS, to an executive with a keen insight into manufacturing that’s not only reaping quality rewards but has enabled him to develop systems like CFlex, a flexible body shop system that has puts a few more aces up GM’s sleeve, Cowger has certainly left his mark on the company.

When asked how he’d like to be remembered when he moves into retirement, the question seems to catch him off guard. For the first time, he doesn’t have an immediate answer. To this industry lifer, driven by an obvious passion for the business, this is not about Gary Cowger. It’s always been about quality and product and making GM number one.

As the interview ends and we rise and head out of the room he finally says, “I’d like to be remembered as the guy who increased GM’s market share.”

He already has, just by being there.

And so it is that we congratulate Gary L. Cowger on his career achievements and are proud to honor him as Automotive Industries’ 2004 Executive of the Year.

Previous posts

Next posts

Tue. July 23rd, 2024

Share this post