3/1/2002 | 6 MINUTE READ

COWGER: Making It "Great" Through Manufacturing

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Generally speaking, marketing or finance folks make it to the top in corporations. Although Gary Cowger is a whole lot more than just a manufacturing guy, he’s spent a lot of time on the factory floor during his career. And now he sits in the president’s office at GM North America. Here’s a look at how his hard work brought him to the top.


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As Gary Cowger looks back at his career at General Motors to date, he recalls an incident that happened when he was plant manager of the GM Assembly Division’s Wentzville, Missouri, plant in 1982. At the time, the plant didn’t exist. He was responsible for building, staffing, and starting the assembly plant.

Where the plant was to be there were five wheat farms. As he was born in Kansas City, he notes, “It bothered me personally to see wheat plowed under.” So they hired a farmer to harvest the wheat before the heavy equipment moved in.

Cowger points out that there are differences between a plant circa 1982 and a plant circa 2002. In today’s facilities—like the recently opened GM Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant—where the machinery and equipment is much leaner than what had been in the past, there isn’t a need for quite the robustness in a building as had been the case. Like in Wentzville. Cowger says that the ground upon which the plant was to be built had a heavy clay content. Stabilization of the ground was needed. One thing that they did toward this end was to mix lime into the soil. Cowger recalls that while this was underway, he got a call from one of his colleagues. “There was a little old lady who lived in a farm house across from the plant site. The wind had kicked up and blew the lime. Her house was white. Her cows were white. She was not real happy with us,” he recalls with a laugh. They took her to dinner. And hosed down her farm. Cows, included.

Gary L. Cowger is president of General Motors North America. He’s also group vice president in charge of GM Manufacturing and Labor Relations, a position he will be naming someone else to soon (if it hasn’t happened already). He’s a man who can tell a story like the Wentzville vignette with great humor; he’s a man who can absolutely convince you that he is dedicated to making sure that General Motors puts the greatest cars and trucks on the road—bar none.

At work. And what is all the more remarkable is that Gary Cowger is a man who has achieved his position by literally working up through the ranks. He started with GM in 1965 as a General Motors Institute (GMI) co-op student at the Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac Div. plant in Kansas City, Kansas. (He earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from GMI in 1970.) In 1978, he went to MIT as a GM Sloan Fellow. Master of science degree in management in hand, he returned to the plant, and was named superintendent. In ’79 Cowger traveled east, to Lansing, Michigan, to Oldsmobile Div., where he became a general superintendent at the Lansing Car Assembly Plant. Then it was to the GM Assembly Division’s St. Louis, MO, assembly plant, as production manager. The Wentzville experience followed. After Wentzville, he was transferred to the Lordstown Assembly and Stamping facilities, as complex manager. Then it was to Cadillac as manufacturing manager in 1987—and he helped the efforts that resulted in Cadillac receiving a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. From Cadillac it was to the GM Technical Centers in 1990, where he was executive director of advanced manufacturing engineering for the Advanced Engineering Staff. In ’93 he became executive-in-charge of the North American Operations Manufacturing Center, and in ’94 he was named president of General Motors de Mexico. Mexico was followed by Europe: January 1, 1998, found him as vice president, Manufacturing, GM Europe. On June 19, 1998, he was named chairman and managing director of Adam Opel AG. Shortly thereafter he was brought back to North America, where he was named group vice president-Labor Relations, on November 1, 1998. He became group vice president in charge of GM Manufacturing and Labor Relations on January 1, 2001. He became president on November 13.

How it’s done. So what is behind it? How did he do it? He candidly admits, “I have never been one that has had a big career plan. I always tried to go into these jobs saying that I’d enjoy it and would do it as long as I felt good about it and was adding value.

“I think the most important thing is to like what you’re doing. I like cars and trucks. I like the automotive business. And you have to apply the energy that’s needed to get the job done. I think that people who perform, who do the job, and who use good judgment get recognized. People shouldn’t spend their time trying to engineer their careers. They should spend their time applying themselves to whatever their job is. It’s said: ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get.’ I agree with that. A lot of it is just pure luck.”

Cowger has obviously worked for his luck.

Asked to reflect on his various jobs through the years, the word “fun” comes up a lot. Even in relation to what must have been trying times. For example, he says, “Being able to go through the Mexican crisis, changing the product portfolio, and taking our share of the market from 16% to 30%—that was a lot of fun.” Others in that position might have used other, less enjoyable descriptions.

He says that one of the rules that he’s always lived by is to communicate. “I’ve always been one for face-to-face communication and making sure that people really understand where you are trying to go, and if they have a problem or question with it, you should talk about it. Clear communications are essential.” This belief in being forthright has undoubtedly helped Cowger get along with the vast array of people that he’s worked with through the years. As he talks about some of his experiences at places like Wentzville, at Cadillac, and in Mexico, he adds, “I guess I’d put optimism up there with communications.”

Dynamic duo. The same day that Cowger was named president of GM North America, Robert A. Lutz was named chairman of the organization. Lutz had joined GM on September 1, 2001, as vice chairman of Product Development, a position he continues to hold. They have formed a formidable team, with Lutz’s well-chronicled car chops and Cowger’s understanding of manufacturing. Lutz says, “Gary and I both believe passionately that the way to success in this business is through outstanding products. Quality gets you in the game and makes you credible. Manufacturing excellence makes you able to build those products at an affordable cost and with benefit to the shareholder. But all the customer ever sees and all that motivates the customer is the product. Both of us are product fans, both of us believe in it passionately, and it is occupying a lot of our attention.”

To which Cowger adds, “People don’t buy manufacturing systems. They buy great cars and trucks. You need great manufacturing systems to get the quality levels and the flexibility to get the right products in the right place. This is all about ‘gotta-have’ products. And at the end of the day, that’s where we’re at.”

The auto industry isn’t easy. Cowger and his colleagues have been working during the past 10 years or so on what is now known as the GM Global Manufacturing System. They’ve been working the bill of materials and bill of processes that will allow the corporation to become more responsive and cost effective, to be able to provide the “great cars and trucks” that he focuses on. And it is hard work. In fact, if you go back through his résumé, you can see that Cowger has worked at creating his luck.

But who can believe that he’s always liked what he was doing?

He finally admits, “Well, when I was a third-shift pipe fitter foreman at Fairfax in ’68 or ’69, I thought that maybe if I could only get on days...I guess the third shift and I didn’t get along that well.”