If you want to change the world, be an engineer.

I’m thinking of having that phrase emblazoned on the bedroom walls of my grandchildren. It’s a quote from Graham Hoare, Ford’s global director for vehicle evaluation and verification, who I interviewed recently while researching an article on car industry careers for a European graduates’ magazine. As he pointed out, everything we touch and use everyday has to be engineered at some point.

General Motors Executive Vice President, Global Product Development & Global Purchasing & Supply Chain Mary Barra January 10, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors)

Which is why it’s great news that two key jobs in the global car business are going to engineers: Mary Barra (above) at General Motors, even better that she is a woman which might encourage even more women into engineering, and Carlos Tavares at PSA Peugeot Citroen are real car guys, if Ms Barra will forgive the expression.

And car companies tend to perform much better when car enthusiasts are at the wheel, rather than bean counters except when a company needs a thorough overhaul and refocus.

Much the same is true of newspapers. They started to lose readers in the 1980s and 90s when accountants took over at the top rather than people passionate about being first with the news that their readers wanted, presented in a way that was understood and fit for purpose.

The Lewis household is a big fan of the Danish political drama Borgen. When the ratings-chasing young TV exec Alex got his come-uppance in the final episode after ignoring journalistic values in favour of higher viewing figures, there was a small nod from the sofa of ‘serves you right’.

It might be stretching a point to say that it’s the same for car makers chasing volume instead of quality of product. But there are parallels to be drawn. You can’t have sales success unless you have the right product to sell – at least not as a sustainable business.

Dan Akerson, GM’s current chairman and chief executive, has done a great job turning the company round, using knowledge from other industries. Ms Barra – a GM lifer – doesn’t have that advantage. But she does have a passion for the product. Reports in the US praise GM’s latest models for engineering, design and quality while the new Chevrolet Impala, a rival to the Ford Taurus/Mondeo, was cited as one of the best saloons ever tested by the magazine Consumer Reports. It was a product overseen by Ms Barra.

Peugeot-Citroën will have a leader in Carlos Tavares (above) who is equally passionate about cars and no mean racer, too. He will bring much-needed knowledge of global markets gained during his time at Renault and the Renault-Nissan alliance.

It’s going to be fascinating watching how these two shape their companies over the coming years – and equally fascinating to see which way Ford goes when the time comes for Alan Mulally to move on.

Tony Lewis
Tony Lewis
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