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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

(continued from page 1)

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."

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