How do some guys get the great jobs? You might have wondered exactly that while reading "Duke-out In Detroit, " a grudge match between GM's Jon Moss and Ford's John Coletti published in our January issue. At their respective corporations, each of these men heads up a department that produces the special cars and trucks you see at car shows and read about in magazines. The 800-horsepower gladiators they rolled out to beat up on each other were business as usual for these guys. And they didn't take a few days off to meet us at the track; they were working.
In what classified section do these jobs appear? When I put that question to Coletti, he said, "I have no idea how I got this job." He was serious. Moreover, his answer is quite common among fast-rising executives. A dozen years ago, Don Runkle was climbing the GM corporate ladder like a fireman; now he's president of a division at parts-maker Delphi. "Every promotion is a complete surprise to me, " he told me. Runkle's career advice was simple: "You only have to find one job. Make sure it's a job you really like. Then you'll do absolutely outstanding at it, and the next job will find you."
Coletti, at 50, is on the same track now. But he remembers how it could have been different. His dad was a laborer. "I was okay with that, I wasn't going to college." Toward the end of his high-school years, he got called out of drafting class to see the guidance counselor. Mr. Szotz explained to him the choices facing a late-'60s graduate: Go to college or die in Vietnam. In a fingers' snap, Coletti was college-bound.
What major, Szotz asked? Coletti's hero at the time was Jim Thornton, driver for the legendary Ramchargers, a drag-racing team composed of Chrysler engineers. Thornton was a mechanical engineer. "I want to be a mechanical engineer, " Coletti decided on the spot.
Thirtysome years later, the man who followed personal enthusiasms into a career offered this advice: "Don't lose sight of your passions. When you drive home at night, your satisfaction is all you have."
Jon Moss, 58, started as an engineer at Oldsmobile in 1963. As was expected of engineers of that era, he kept a lid on his passions. But they are very much alive. A love of cars is a prerequisite, he said. "With that interest, you tend to push 150 percent." And that "push" got him "overall vehicle knowledge." He worked in design, he worked in development, he learned what makes cars handle. "Get as well rounded as you can, " he counseled, "and it takes more than two years." The typical guy on his support staff now has 25 years of experience, he said.
Moss is only eight years older than Coletti, but in the years between them the stairs up to the executive suite gained an extra step. Moss doesn't have an MBA (Coletti does), but he recommends one. "In the hierarchy of big business today, that's the language, " he said.
Coletti and Moss both have the raw ambition required to succeed anywhere, but I doubt that either one ever considered career-hopping out of the auto industry. Beneath it all, they're car guys, a fraternity that includes every writer on this magazine. Being a car guy doesn't guarantee anything, except an interesting life. In fact, it has sometimes been a career liability. Jon Moss and I started our engineering careers the same year. Back then, being a car guy was suspect. Would a car guy make decisions based on good business, or would he be biased toward fun cars that only a few enthusiasts would buy? The bosses were wary of us.
In the '80s, when the imports were eating Detroit's lunch, car guys were back in fashion. "Do sumthin', you guys, so folks won't say our cars are dull and demand rebates." The urgency was so hot at GM for a while, Don Runkle told me, that some execs who'd never squealed a tire were pretending to be car guys, just because they thought it made them more promotable.
Car guys are now out of favor again. GM and Ford have turned to "brand managers, " Procter & Gamble-type marketing experts who supposedly know how to peddle anything. But if we compare GM car sales since lead director John Smale brought in the pantyhosers with Chrysler's performance under a battalion of car guys lead by Bob Lutz, we see GM slipping to a record low share of market while Chrysler soars.