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Of Cars and Cigars

Gary Cowger diverted his dreams of baseball diamond greatness to another field: automobile making.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mar/Apr 03

Though he never achieved his childhood ambition of pitching for a professional baseball team there's no question Gary Cowger is playing in the big leagues these days.

Strolling into Detroit's vast Cobo Hall on a chilly January afternoon Cowger surveyed his own field of dreams' the sprawling General Motors exhibit that captured so much attention during the annual North American International Auto Show. With a mix of concept cars and production vehicles GM dominated the annual event something few could have imagined possible when Cowger was named president of the company's long-troubled North American automotive operations. But today as he fast approaches 56 Cowger himself has trouble at times believing the twists and turns his own life has taken since joining the giant automaker as a co-op student back in 1965.

Among those who know him his rapid rise is anything but a surprise. Cowger brings to GM a balanced blend of style and substance a willingness to listen and an ability to convince a love of cars tempered by a levelheaded sense of business basics. He's also a bit of an outsider in GM's clubby corporate atmosphere. That might seem odd for someone who's collected a paycheck from the carmaker for nearly 40 years. Until recently however he hadn't served a stint in Detroit. But along with the time he's spent in the American heartland assignments in Europe and Latin America have made Gary Cowger well aware of the increasingly global nature of the modern auto industry.

"I had in my mind I was this great professional baseball player" Cowger says with a laugh both wistful and self-effacing. Growing up in rural post-war Kansas City listening to scratchy broadcasts of ball games on an AM radio it seemed a perfectly logical goal especially since his father coached a successful local youth team.

When Cowger graduated magna cum laude from high school he wanted to play ball at Kansas State but he wasn't offered a scholarship. One day however an invitation came in the mail from what was then known as the General Motors Institute the automotive equivalent of Harvard. "Don't congratulate me" he recalls telling his family "I want to play baseball." But his father "broke the news to me." The wanna-be ballplayer would be a good pitcher but never a great one. So reluctantly the young man went off to learn about the auto industry. Nearly 40 years later it's a decision Gary Cowger occasionally revisits but one he never really questions.

It wasn't a complete disconnect. Cowger was a car buff as long as he can remember. The first picture he has of himself shows a broadly grinning boy barely old enough to walk sitting in an old metal-pedal car. He grew up learning the words to all the old car songs. And he lost his coverage when the local insurance agent came down the alley and found the teenaged Cowger working on his souped-up Chevy Bel Air.

Better yet while General Motors Institute wasn't exactly a sports powerhouse it provided Cowger a place to shine on its various teams. That was of course when he wasn't working in the school's co-op program which gave him his first taste of what it was like in a car plant. It wasn't always easy. Though the institute had a history of training GM's best-and-brightest it made sure students knew every aspect of the company and every six weeks during the school year' Cowger and the others would leave the classrooms to work as "shop rats" on the assembly line. It was experience that would pay off for a lifetime.

By the time Cowger was ready to graduate "I decided this was pretty much a good thing."

This longtime runner was soon ready for GM's fast track. By 25 he was a shift superintendent at his hometown plant in Kansas City quickly landing a series of more challenging assignments with increasing responsibility. In 1977 he headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a GM Sloan Fellow; when he returned Cowger was appointed paint superintendent of the Kansas City plant. He wouldn't stay long.

Word was getting around and in short order Cowger rotated through a series of field assignments. He earned a reputation as something of a fireman the type of guy who could be brought into a troubled plant and make things work. He proved it at Cadillac where he became manufacturing manager in 1987.

Once the General Motors flagship and the self-proclaimed "standard of the world" Caddy's fortunes had fallen and nothing symbolized the situation more than the marque's main assembly plant in suburban Detroit. It was supposed to be GM's most modern yet among other things its robots had a tendency to do things like weld doors shut. It wasn't simple but by the time Cowger was ready for his next assignment Cadillac would win the government's coveted Malcolm Baldridge Award for its campaign to improve quality.

Cowger was a manufacturing man but to reach the upper levels of General Motors management he needed to broaden his experience. In 1994 he was sent off to run GM de Mexico where he'd serve as president and managing director. He not only had to learn to manage an entire company but to do it in another language. Making matters worse the Mexican economy would soon be in the middle of a meltdown. It was the sort of situation that had ended the career of more than a few other fast-trackers. However when Cowger moved on' four years later he'd turned around the operation. GM de Mexico had nearly doubled its market share and posted some of the highest quality numbers anywhere in GM's worldwide system.

For his success Cowger was handed a plum assignment. Then 51 he was named chairman and managing director of German subsidiary Adam Opel AG. It was a challenging job but Europe also had served as the launching pad for a variety of corporate leaders including GM Chairman John F. "Jack" Smith. But Cowger and his wife Kay weren't going to be in Europe long for things were going from bad to worse back in the States.

When Cowger was growing up in the shadow of the Kansas City plant General Motors was the auto industry's indisputable powerhouse. But by the late 1990s it had been pummeled by a combination of management mistakes and increasing competition. GM barely survived a 1992 brush with bankruptcy and while its balance sheet improved it continued losing market share. Worse it was being torn apart from the inside as management and labor which had seen several strikes in the '90s staged an increasingly rancorous war. A 54-day shutdown during the summer of 1998 cost the company more than $2 billion -- but it also made it clear to both sides that they had to find a solution.

Cowger wasn't ready for the call asking him to head back to the States. According to insiders it was the United Auto Workers union's fire-breathing president Steve Yokich who first brought up Cowger's name. But sitting behind a desk in Germany' the chief executive officer of Opel had a very terse reply. "No hell no." But it was more a demand than a request and he eventually realized it was time to go home -- to the toughest assignment he'd ever face. It is not overstating the situation to say that GM's fate hung on his success as the new head of labor relations.

Asked why he was picked Cowger jokes that he "was the only one at the top of the company who was not in the country for the last five years" but there was a more serious reason why he'd been singled out by both union and management.

"He's the first manager" Art Baker recalls ever working with who would "start with people processes." A senior union official in Lansing' Michigan Baker has been working with Cowger for more than 30 years and has always been impressed that "instead of disciplining he went the people route. He's improved the lot of the worker" and that was the sort of mind-set that the union wanted to see.

It wasn't exactly a lovefest but the strikes stopped. A self-described "inclusionist" Cowger is the type of person who prefers to listen to everyone's opinion before offering one of his own. And the two sides each had a lot to say. "At the end of the day the more people understand what you're trying to get done the better off the team is" Cowger stresses.

It took time to understand and a lot of difficult bargaining to come up with a mutual solution but in 1999 labor and management settled on a breakthrough contract. Suddenly productivity began to rise across the country. So did quality. After decades suffering as the industry laggard GM was quickly setting the pace for the Big Three. The company soared to the top of the oft-quoted J.D. Power quality charts. And according to the latest "Harbour Report'" an annual measure of factory efficiency the carmaker has even been gaining ground on the Japanese.

For each success Gary Cowger has always been given another challenge. He was given his latest on November 13 2001 when he was named president of General Motors North America. It positioned him as the company's number four executive and the counterpart to Bob Lutz the former Marine pilot and ex-Chrysler Corp. president who was brought out of retirement and appointed GM's "car czar."

It's been a perfect pairing of two men "who can attend each other's meetings and never miss a beat" says Lutz who is clearly fond of his new partner. "It's a great combination. We never have to argue about who does what. So we have a great working relationship -- and a lot of fun personally as well."

There are moments when it might be hard to believe there can actually be time for fun laughs Cowger. Blame Henry Ford perhaps the former farmer who helped shape the auto industry in his own early-rising image. Meetings in Detroit usually begin no later than 7 a.m. So to get his daily four-mile run in Cowger is usually up and ready by 4:30. A run might start his morning but for "dessert" at the end of the day Cowger will often light up a cigar. It's a treat he first learned on assignment in Mexico where "it is a part of that culture." He's also had several skilled mentors back home including former GM advertising chief Phil Guarascio and the legendary Lutz who is seldom seen without a cigar. (Both men have been subjects of prior profiles in Cigar Aficionado. -- Ed.)

"It's the flavor and taste I enjoy" Cowger says with a broad grin. "After a great meal a little Cognac a great cigar."

Cowger's taste is eclectic and he concedes with a wink that he "always looks at those ratings in Cigar Aficionado." He'll most often light up a Fuente Fuente Opus X a Davidoff or a C.A.O. which he proudly points out discovering while on assignment in Mexico "long before they became so popular up here. It tastes as good to me as anything I ever had." Cowger has also developed an interest in collecting rare cigars including pre-Castro Cubans. He stores them in a collection of humidors at home as well as in his office at the Detroit Renaissance Center along the riverfront.

To complement the flavor he has his collection of Cognacs along with an assortment of fine French reds and "super" Tuscans as well as Pinot Grigios.

The time to enjoy those cigars and wine seems to come later in the day with each new assignment especially as Cowger adds more civic chores to his list. He's on a variety of boards' including those of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute) and Focus: HOPE an inner-city organization that helps train the supposedly unemployable.

But whether he's hitching a ride in the fighter jet owned by Lutz or simply taking a long drive in one of his own cars Cowger insists on having fun with his life. He's a little vague when asked exactly how many cars sit in his garage perhaps because he's not sure. There's a 50th anniversary Corvette a two-seat Buick Reatta a Cadillac Escalade andÖthe voice tapers off for a moment...there's also room for a 57 Chevy. Robin's egg blue. Just like the Bel Air his father gave him. But it's going to have the floor-mounted Hurst shifter that the insurance agent back in Kansas City made him take out.

Cowger's life may have taken a few unexpected turns but he hasn't abandoned the past. He's still got a mean fastball which he's proved at the fantasy camp run by the Detroit Tigers at their Lakeland Florida winter base. They even offered him a contract though at a penny Cowger is probably better off keeping his day job.

"He enjoys having a good time. He knows how to have fun" says David Cole director of the Center for Automotive Research and a longtime Cowger friend. But don't mistake Cowger's wry sense of humor for being laid-back. "He's ambitious and I've told him this won't be his last job." Indeed word around town suggests that Gary Cowger still has a few more challenges ahead of him as he aims to help General Motors regain the glory it had when he was a kid growing up in sight of its smokestacks.


Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an auto magazine on the Internet at www.TheCarConnection.com.

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