EXPORT STRENGTH

AUSTRALIA’S LOSS IS DETROIT’S GAIN. MEET THE SIX AUSSIES WHO HAVE BECOME KEY PLAYERS IN THE GENERAL MOTORS EMPIRE

WORDS: PETER ROBINSON PHOTOS: THOMAS WIELECKI

TWELVE years ago Gerard Connell was studying marketing at university in Melbourne; Jess Bala was in the middle of law and marketing degrees at Monash University and about to join Holden; Mike Simcoe was running GM’s Australian and South Korean design studios; Phil Brook had recently joined Holden’s marketing department; Travis Hester was technical assistant to Holden CEO Denny Mooney; and, after 10 years in Holden marketing, Megan Stooke had newly moved to Michigan to work for GM.

Today, in September 2017, all are employed by General Motors in Detroit. They are among 74 Australians, many ex-Holden, now working for GM in the USA. It is no coincidence.

Says Travis Hester, now effectively GM’s global chief engineer, “Once the decision was taken to downsize Holden, there was recognition of the huge talent at Holden and an understanding that [GM] didn’t want to lose these people.”

Pushed by former Holden CEO Mark Reuss, now Vice President for Global Product Development (Hester and Simcoe report directly to Reuss), a couple of GM executives – including Hester – flew to Melbourne to sell the idea of the move to Detroit to Holden’s young high-fliers. Most jumped at the opportunity.

“Out of that came a mass migration to Detroit,” says Hester.

After Reuss’s 2008-2009 time at Fishermans Bend, there was a recognition that the culture and diversity of experience gained at Holden, essentially a small-scale version of the GM mothership, perfectly suited his plans to rejuvenate GM’s development philosophy and thinking.

Reuss believes car development is shifting more towards electric cars, software and autonomous development over mechanical progress, and wants a younger workforce.

Seniority was no longer enough for promotion. Most graphically, Hester, just 45, is younger than all 16 of his direct reports. Today, 30 percent of people in GM’s product development group have less than five years’ experience at The General.

A generation of older executives were coming up to natural retirement age and Reuss saw Australia as a significant route to talented people. The vast majority have settled into Detroit with their families: very few have returned home.

None of the six Australians I talked to wanted to acknowledge the existence of a so-called ‘Australian Mafia’, though a couple of American engineers I spoke to unofficially admitted there was “some internal resistance to the Australians.”

Tough. GM’s Warren Technical Centre employs 19,000 – of a global total of 200,000 – so 74 people is hardly a coup. At the highest levels of the company there is an understanding that Holden’s loss is GM’s gain and, for 74 Australians, the opportu nity of a lifetime.

01 “I’M AN EARLY ADOPTER SO WORKING ON FUTURE VEHICLE TECH IS AMAZING”

J E S S B A L A , 3 3 G L O B A L C R U Z E P R O D U C T M A N A G E R JESS Bala happily admits she queued to be one of the first with an iPhone. The selfconfessed techno-nerd studied to be a lawyer, but two years’ internship left her knowing law didn’t appeal as a career path.

Instead, she joined Holden in after-sales and was quickly promoted to work in New Zealand in logistics, before returning to Melbourne and working as a planning analyst, quickly rising to become a product planner on Commodore and Holden’s SUV ranges.

Working specifically on infotainment and technology strategy, the job took her to the increasingly important Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

“There are so many different facets to Holden,” she says, “I worked in a breadth of roles in planning, design, manufacturing and purchasing. It’s a saturation business that allows quick promotion and global experience.”

When GM advertised the Technology Planning Manager role, based in Detroit, the “job title jumped out” and she and her husband (who also works in IT) were soon in Detroit. Almost four years later, Jess was promoted to the Global Cruze Product Manager role, a now far more significant position given the sale of Opel and the loss of the competing Astra model.

Bala is confident the long-term loss of Opel and Astra won’t impact on GM’s competitiveness in the small car market. Jess says the next generation car is “amazing.

There is so much headroom for Cruze [to move upmarket]. Detroit is doing the bulk of the work.”

To fulfil the role, Bala has offices at both the Warren Technical Centre and at GM’s head office in the tubes at Detroit’s downtown Renaissance Centre.

Jess, the unofficial social secretary for the Australians at Detroit, helps organise a July BBQ for the Aussies and their families, and the midnight-to-4:00am gathering to watch the AFL grand final.

Her father, Jake Landsberger, is team doctor at the Western Bulldogs, though he also took his daughter to motor shows.

“Last year I wanted to fly home for the grand final [which the Bulldogs won] but no doctor we saw would let me travel (she was seven months pregnant). I was very homesick the week before the game.”

Q U E S T I O N & A N S W E R

When did you join Holden?

January 2007.

When did you move to Michigan?

September 2013.

What attracted you to working for GM?

My previous job as Technology Planning Manager. I’m an early adopter so the chance to work on technology features for our vehicles five-to-10 years into the future sounded amazing.

Do you still feel connected to Holden?

Absolutely! When someone asks me a question about Holden, I still say “we”. I talk to Holden people during the week and see Holden’s daily sales reports.

What first attracted you to Holden?

I have always been interested in cars and went to car shows with dad. At a careers fair at Monash, a Holden student co-op program jumped out to me.

What do you most like about working in Detroit? Breadth of work and topics.

The size of the company and the passion for the GM brands blows me away.

What do you least like about working in Detroit? Excluding living through the polar vortex: two metres of snow and -50°C wind chill, being so far from home is tough. I miss family, friends and footy.

02“AS THE FIRST OUTSIDER TO RUN A REGION, I CAME IN WITH A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE”

P H I L B R O O K , 5 2 V I C E P R E S I D E N T , M A R K E T I N G – B U I C K & G M C PHILIP Brook spent nine years at Honda and another nine years with Nissan before Holden’s Ross McKenzie, the legendary sales and marketing boss, convinced him to switch to Fishermans Bend.

“It was every little boy’s dream to work at Holden,” Brook says, nominating the increased scale of Holden as another reason for the change. The chance to operate in a senior role at Holden with CEO Mark Reuss and Alan Batey, after McKenzie’s (then head of marketing) retirement, soon produced a couple of international job offers.

“I was up for it,” Brook says. “The scale thing again; I ended up in Dallas as regional director for Buick and GMC in charge of 10 states. Forty percent of US sales of pick-up trucks are in this area so it’s the most important.

“Then I was offered the VP for marketing for GMC/Buick working in Detroit. Because I’d been the first outsider to run a region, that meant I came in with different perspectives, with an understanding of the market at the coalface, rather than a central office view.”

GMC, now easily the most profitable division within General Motors, includes the top-spec nameplate Denali that takes around 30 percent of all GMC sales of most models. It’s GMC that builds the Acadia SUV that will soon be sold in Australia as a Holden.

The so-called Denali Effect means GMC keeps boosting the percentage of brand devotees who demand the top-of-the-line Denali version, which enhances GM’s bottom line and gives GMC real credibility as the US industry’s purest and most advanced premium truck and SUV brand.

“We can’t put enough stuff into the SUVs,” claims Brook. “Can you imagine an SUV with a head-up display?”

Brook says Buick, traditionally the car for bank managers, is in the process of moving to be an SUV brand with sedans, rather than the opposite.

He is another Australian who sees years at Holden as the perfect launch for an international career.

“Holden is such a good breeding ground,” he argues. “Culturally it is not such a big jump. Holden trains you very well and offers so many more challenges.”

Q U E S T I O N & A N S W E R

When did you join Holden? 2004.

When did you move to Michigan?

I moved to Texas in October 2014 as Regional Director for Buick & GMC, then to Michigan in March 2017.

What attracted you to working for GM?

The opportunity to be at the epicentre of the company and make a difference on a global basis.

Do you still feel a connection to Holden?

Absolutely. Australia will always be home.

I talk regularly to my Holden colleagues and some Holden dealers.

What attracted you to Holden in the first place? If you love cars it’s every Aussie kid’s dream to work for Holden.

Holden created the Australian car industry. To have the opportunity to run sales and marketing at Holden was a dream come true.

What do you most like about working in Detroit? Being involved in decisions that will shape the future of GM. I’m part of a very diverse team that is focused on winning. I also really like the city. It’s a place with a poor reputation, but it’s really on the up and up.

What do you least like about working in Detroit? I’m not looking forward to being here during the winter...

03 “I HAD A SIMPLE CAREER APPROACH – WORK HARD, SEIZE EVERY OPPORTUNITY”

G E R A R D C O N N E L L , 3 3 D I R E C T O R – S A L E S & M A R K E T I N G , O N S T A R AS ONE of four people in Holden’s 2008 graduate program, Gerard Connell was rotated across different parts of the company, gaining broad experience, before settling in sales and marketing. Just 18 months later he was tapped for a new challenge; working for Stefan Jacoby, vice-president of GM’s international operations, in GM’s Singapore office.

“Holden’s HR department knew I wanted international experience,” he says. “Stefan is an inspirational leader who invested time in me. It was a huge learning curve and the opportunity showed me what I could do.”

Connell says the move was part of his personal business plan, while admitting the interests of the company come first.

Then came the chance to work in Detroit.

After two late-night video interviews, Connell joined OnStar, GM’s subscription-based communications, in-vehicle security, turnby- turn navigation, remote diagnostics and automatic crash response system that now operates in the USA, Canada, China, Europe, Brazil and, according to Connell, is coming to Holden in 2019.

Launched in the USA 20 years ago, OnStar now has more than 12 million subscribers in America (5.5m have the latest 4G LTE WiFi in their cars) and takes three phone calls per second. Subscriptions cost $US20-$35 per month, the basic plan bringing unlimited data and seamless streaming.

The app is used more than 10 million times every month to remotely start, lock and unlock vehicles, get vehicle data, send directions to the car and more. OnStar says the 4G LTE platform will even allow customers to update certain systems after vehicle purchase.

Around 5000 cars per month go straight through to OnStar with a request for help after an accident.

“It’s about being there when people need help,” says Connell, who says it even allows an OnStar operator to unlock your car after an accident.

Connell, who lives with his Australian wife in downtown Detroit, loves the renewal the city is experiencing.

Asked why Australians are so successful within GM, he says, “With exposure to broad business disciplines and experience, plus a strong work ethic, Holden produces wellrounded people. They reflect well on Holden and how the company develops people.”

Q U E S T I O N & A N S W E R

When did you join Holden? January 2008 as a graduate, in Sales, Service and Marketing.

When did you move to Michigan?

February 2017, after three years in Singapore supporting Regional President Stefan Jacoby as his personal business planning manager.

What attracted you to working for GM?

I’ve always had a simple career approach – work hard, be a team player, seize every opportunity and get the best out of yourself. I could never have predicted the opportunities Holden provided.

Do you still feel connected to Holden?

Without question. I am where I am because of Holden and the people who believed in me. There’s always a feeling of wanting to do the brand proud.

What first attracted you to Holden?

An admiration for our iconic Australian brand. My dad always drove Holdens.

During university, I gained experience at Ford and instantly loved the industry.

Holden announced a graduate program and I jumped on the opportunity. During my final interview, I explained I’d worked at Ford but bought a Commodore.

What you least like about working in Detroit? It’s a long way from the MCG.

04 “WHEN YOU SAY SOMETHING I WANT IT TO MATTER”

M I K E S I M C O E , 5 9 V I C E P R E S I D E N T , G L O B A L D E S I G N WHO IS Michael Simcoe? People inside and outside GM asked the obvious question upon the Australian’s surprise appointment as only the seventh Vice President of Design at GM in the 69 years since Harley Earl established the ‘Art and Color’ section in 1927.

For Design Communications’ Robyn Henderson who, Simcoe says, “is my conscious”, the most effective solution was to hand out copies of Bruce Newton’s insightful profile (Wheels, June 2016). A wonderful piece of journalism (I wish I’d been the author), ‘Melbourne to Motown’ painted a remarkably honest picture of GM’s hugely talented and intelligent new design boss, the only non-American to hold the position.

Simcoe’s rise to prominence is well known to Wheels readers: mostly through his creation of the second-generation Monaro as a tape-drawing on his living room wall and his successful fight to give the VE Commodore the proportions he knew would create a beautiful design.

More than a year into his new position, Simcoe is very much at home in his historic corner office, once Harley Earl’s, with a view of the entire Warren Technical Center product development campus.

“My intention is not to rock the boat too much,” he says with a grin, adding, “I didn’t come in as a destructor, but there were things I was aware needed changing to enable the team to better know what it is doing. The biggest impact I’ve had was to stop one program, not in a design sense, but to reset the program.”

Simcoe leads a team of 2000 people with 20 to 25 percent of these in purely creative positions. At any one time the studios have 20 full-size models under styling development from around 100 global programs.

GM is soon to begin work on doubling the size of the Detroit design studios which will surround its historic design dome, auditorium and viewing patio to, in Simcoe’s words, “give us more capacity and more space for people.

We’re crowded now and can’t get far enough from full-scale models.”

As for his managerial style at GM, Simcoe admits with typical Australian frankness that he “can be a bit of a bastard in the studio.” He also says, “I don’t high-five with people just doing their jobs. When you say something, I want it to matter.”

Q U E S T I O N & A N S W E R

When did you join Holden?

November 3, 1983.

When did you move to Michigan? 1990- ’92, 2004-’11 and most recently, May 2016.

What attracted you to working for GM? Best job in the world.

Do you still feel connected to Holden?

I am Australian.

What first attracted you to Holden?

Came home from working in the UK and Holden contacted me, seemed like a good idea at the time.

What do you like most about working in Detroit? People in design. We are redefining the industry; we are living an historic inflexion.

What do you like least about working in Detroit? Biggest small town in the world; the cafes, coffee and food.

AFL Team? I am from the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne (Hawthorn).

Classic car ownership? Cars and bikes: 1961 Aston Martin DB4, 1956 Lancia Aurelia B20 GT, 1960 Elfin Climax Streamliner, 1078 Ducati SS900, 1928 Douglas DT5/SW5, 1971 Norton Commando Fast Back Long Range, Norton Slimline, Norton powered ‘Cafe’… and if I’m really lucky I’ll find a Corvette 1963 split window… the search is on.

05 “IF YOU’RE NOT NEW AND INNOVATIVE, THEN YOU RISK BECOMING IRRELEVANT’’

M E G A N S T O O K E , P R O U D L Y G E N X C H I E F M A R K E T I N G O F F I C E R , M A V E N IN 1995, Holden was a sad tenth in small- and medium-car sales in Australia. In no small part thanks to Megan Stooke’s expertise and marketing skill, under Kevin Wale’s leadership (he later ran GM China), they devised the highly successful Barina Girl advertising campaign and established Holden marketing channels in non-traditional areas. It worked: by 2000 Holden sat second.

Stooke, clearly in the fast-lane, then worked in Holden’s export division, gaining international experience in the Middle East, Brazil, Korea and America. Impressed with her energy, Brent Dewar, head of Chevrolet, tapped the young Aussie for a job in Detroit in 2005.

“I was looking for a new challenge and the opportunity was impossible to ignore,” Stooke says. “Holden is a smaller organisation, so you get to understand the total business and the interdependency of each operation and how they impact on the business. Holden people become generalists.”

Her move to Detroit led to leadership roles in marketing at Chevrolet, Cadillac, Hummer and Saab before being appointed General Director of GM’s Global Marketing, work that involved overseeing GM’s relationship with Disney and Chevrolet’s sponsorship of Manchester United soccer team.

In 2016 she joined GM’s Maven, a start-up car sharing business (now in Australia) aimed at consumers who don’t own a car and value sharing and experiences beyond possessions.

Stooke, Maven’s chief marketing officer, says the start-up, part of GM’s turnaround, is aimed at millennials.

“It’s the perfect job for me,” she says. “The automotive world is constantly changing.

We’re seeing that every industry is being disrupted by technology and data. So, if you’re not new and innovative, then you risk becoming irrelevant.

“At Maven, we are a mobility service delivered by OnStar technology, all through an app on your phone. It’s designed for an increasingly urban population. It’s an exciting time to be a marketer and it’s fascinating to see how this generation is changing our economy, not just in the automotive world but in fashion, music, housing and everything else. This generation popularised the sharing economy and the influence of social networks and how they connect people.”

Q U E S T I O N & A N S W E R

When did you join Holden? April 1995 When did you move to Michigan? 2005 What attracted you to working for GM?

The opportunity to lead Chevrolet advertising in the USA. For a marketer, it doesn’t get much bigger or more exciting than leading a global brand like Chevy.

Do you still feel connected to Holden?

Of course. Holden is a symbol and refl ection of Australia’s unique lifestyle and culture. Spending a large part of my career marketing a brand that has such a powerful emotional connection is a career highlight.

What first attracted you to Holden?

The marketing opportunities at Holden in a business that is competitive, exciting and passion-fi lled.

What do you most like about working in Detroit? Detroit is undergoing an amazing transformation, it’s rewarding to be part of a modern renaissance.

There are lots of start-ups choosing Detroit as their base, as well as a strong art and music scene.

What do you least like about working in Detroit? Driving in deep snow in January when it is -7°C requires skill that even my Lang Lang Proving ground training did not equip me for.

06 ‘‘I CAN’T WAIT TO GET WORKING ON THE NEXT CRUZE”

T R A V I S H E S T E R , 4 5 V I C E P R E S I D E N T – G L O B A L V E H I C L E C H I E F E N G I N E E R TRAVIS Hester was 18 when he first went to America in 1990. He flew into Los Angeles, though his return flight was from New York, three months hence. His transport for the cross-country drive: an 8.2-litre V8 1973 Cadillac Eldorado.

Five years later, following graduation from university, Hester joined Holden as an engineer working on the VT program.

Later, employed in cross-functional areas in development, he spent two days a week at the Lang Lang proving ground, before working as CEO Denny Mooney’s technical assistant, a sure sign GM had bigger plans for him.

Mooney suggested he gain international experience in either China or Detroit. He chose the USA, working on both the VE Commodore and the Chevy Camaro as part of the Zeta program: “I have finger prints on both.” He then spent three years in China on vehicle architectures before relocating to Detroit where, in 2010, he was given a clean sheet to begin GM’s Omega program.

Omega, destined to underpin new Cadillac models for China and the USA, began with the flagship CT6, a luxury rear- or all-wheeldrive sedan. Launched in 2016, the CT6 aims for a European handling feel and brings reduced mass and increased torsional rigidity.

GM insiders claim the CT6 was late and over budget (Hester says they weren’t in a rush), but so impressed were his bosses that he was quickly promoted to GM’s vice president of engineering, a massive job that puts him in charge of around 100 global programs in various stages of development.

GM’s controversial sale of Opel, with its strong product development talents but expensive manufacturing costs, is still the source of much conversation in Detroit.

Says Hester when asked, “The sale of Opel was well thought through, the decision allows us to focus on what we need to do. It’s good for Opel and for us. I can’t wait to get working on the next Cruze.” It’s currently under development in GM’s Detroit design studios.

Friday afternoons, Hester and Mark Reuss (his boss) spend two hours driving the latest prototypes in rotation at GM’s Milford proving ground “to make sure we are going to hit the target market.”

How far can Hester go? Mike Simcoe, a huge fan, believes the young Australian has the potential to reach the top of GM.

Q U E S T I O N & A N S W E R

When did you join Holden? 1995 as a graduate engineer.

When did you move to Michigan? 2005, working in Advanced Vehicle Development.

What attracted you to work for GM?

Initial plan was a two-year assignment, then came four years in China, now back in the US. It’s a great experience working in different cultures.

Do you still feel connected to Holden?

Absolutely, Holden and Australia. I talk to someone at Holden almost daily.

What first attracted you to Holden?

I loved to design and construct things as a boy. As an engineer, there was no better place than designing vehicles at Holden.

What do you like most about working in Detroit? We are transforming the future of transportation. It’s new, exciting and will change lives, not just how people drive.

And the least? The weather – dealing with a Detroit winter with temps of -20°C.

AFL team? The Western Bulldogs. I flew home for the weekend just to catch a live game.

Classic car ownership? Black 1962 Corvette. I drive it every chance I get: 327 V8 engine, four-speed manual.