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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.

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