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A View From Industry

09/19/2008 10:40 AM Kresge
Gary Cowger, SF '78, Group Vice President of Global Manufacturing and Labor Relations, General Motors Corp

Description: GM knows you'll be skeptical, says Gary Cowger, but this icon of American business has committed to transforming itself via a comprehensive regime of environmental sustainability. Cowger offers proof of the corporate giant's efforts to date and even more ambitious plans for the future.

From its headquarters in Detroit, to 185 manufacturing sites around the world, to the cars and trucks people drive out of a dealership, GM sees "environmental sustainability more and more ingrained in our operating culture every day." Cowger says employees in every plant, in every language around the world must embrace environmental metrics along with safety and quality.

This means, for instance, that GM is installing giant solar panels at sites in Europe and the U.S., in some cases, sending electricity back to the grid. It's harnessing the energy of landfill gases to fire boilers and generate electricity. There are water reduction and reuse initiatives in thirsty spots like Mexico, and habitat enhancement and restoration projects in North America and Brazil. What's more, GM has pledged to eliminate all waste at its operations worldwide; to date, 43 facilities are landfill free (your bag of trash accounts for more waste than all these plants put together, says Cowger.) He projects that renewable initiatives will amount to savings in excess of $75 million within a few years.

GM is pursuing a comparably diverse strategy with its cars and trucks, providing consumers with options to increase fuel economy, reduce emissions and "displace petrol." In the next few years, expect more than 20 diesel engine variants,and biofuel"driven cars feeding on switchgrass, forest and farm residues and trash -- "the landfills we used to hate are becoming gems," notes Cowger. GM is producing 20 versions of cars than can run on such flexfuels. The company is also developing a variety of hybrids, rear and front"wheel drive. The piece de resistance, what Cowger calls "the gamechanger," will be the GM Volt. This is GM's version "of how the auto will be reinvented," a car that uses only electricity to power the wheels. If you don't drive more than 40 miles per day, "you'll never need to buy gasoline again," says Cowger, because this car plugs in each night to recharge its lithium ion battery. Transforming the industry, he concludes, is good for business and "it's the right thing to do."

About the Speaker(s): Gary Cowger is responsible for directing all of GM's manufacturing and labor relations activities worldwide. Prior to his current position, Cowger served as president of General Motors North America. Cowger began his GM career in 1965 at the company's Kansas City assembly plant as a co"op student for General Motors Institute. He worked his way up through the ranks to become superintendent of the plant, taking a brief break in 1978 to attend MIT as a GM Sloan Fellow. After going back to GM in 1979, Cowger continued to rise through various plant management positions, and was appointed manufacturing manager of GM's Cadillac division in 1987. He became president and managing director of GM de M_xico in 1994 and was elected a GM vice president in October 1994.

Cowger was named manufacturing vice president for GM Europe in 1998 and placed in charge of the overall coordination of Opel/Vauxhall operations for 14 plants in ten countries. He was then appointed chairman and managing director of Adam Opel in Germany. Later that same year, Cowger became group vice president of labor relations for GM North America and then group vice president of manufacturing and labor relations in 2001.

Cowger earned a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering from General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) and a master of science degree in management from MIT. In 2006, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. In 2004, he was named Automotive Industries' Executive of the Year; and the prior year, he received the Society of Automotive Engineers' Manufacturing Leadership Award.

Host(s): Sloan School of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

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