A fine-tuner's next task: GM's model lineup

Automotive News reports on GM's new vice-president of global product development's plans for the GM model lineup.

Photo by Automotive News

When Tom Stephens was 10, he turned a pile of old plumbing pipes, a pair of hard rubber tires, and a sputtering old lawn mower engine into a minibike.

It went only about 5 mph, but young Tom was proud. And he immediately began tinkering to make it better. He would go on to work his way through college by fixing neighbors' cars and spend most of his adult life under the hood in the engineer's endless quest to tinker and improve.

Now the 60-year-old son of a Detroit tool and die maker takes on the ultimate tuneup--the future product plan of bankrupt General Motors--with tens of thousands of jobs and billions of taxpayer dollars hanging in the balance.

The key questions:

-- What's the plan?

-- Who is Tom Stephens, and is he the right guy for the job?

Tom's garage

As he leads a tour of the pole barn in northern Michigan where he keeps his car collection, Stephens provides some insight into both questions. He's in good spirits; his busy schedule these days allows him to visit his car collection only four or five times a year.

The toys on display include 16 muscle cars, seven high-performance engines lined up against the wall, a lift, and a speed boat parked in a corner. Posters of GM's classic cars and engines line the walls.

The floors are clean, free of the oil stains that decorate most garages. And, as with any guy's garage, there's the occasional oddity--for example, the World War II civil defense poster that displays warplane silhouettes for anti-aircraft gun crews.

His collection includes four Corvette Stingrays, a rumbling 1966 Chevy Impala convertible with a 504-cubic-inch dragster engine and a bright red 1993 Cadillac Allante--the first car to feature the Northstar V-8, an engine he designed.

He trades gossip with old friend Larry Shoup, a retired pharmacist and muscle car enthusiast who is half owner of some of the cars in Stephens' collection.

Stephens is the kind of guy who takes stuff apart just to see how it works. And the cars give mute testimony to that mindset: He tinkers. He can't leave well enough alone. The cars should be a little faster. Corner better. Stop on a dime.

Consider the work he did on his blue 1970 Buick 455 Gran Sport hardtop. Like most muscle cars of the era, it could blast from one stoplight to the next, but couldn't get around corners very well.

Stephens transplanted the suspension system from a '78 Pontiac Trans Am into the Buick, then modified the car's rear axle, steering system and front axles. Now, he says, it handles almost like a sports car.

And that's the plan for GM. Stephens envisions a process of continual improvement--kaizen--on a basically sound plan that predecessor Bob Lutz has put in place over the past few years.

Big changes in 2005

Stephens says GM got religion back in 2005, when the company overhauled its product development. Instead of settling for "competitive" (i.e. average) results in categories such as noise, vibration and harshness, the company began aiming for best-in-class.

For each major development category of the vehicle--such as power train, heating and cooling, body-in-white--a global chief now is responsible for spreading "best practices" throughout the company.

And each vehicle category now has a global architecture. Small cars in Asia, for example, can be engineered the same way as small cars in North America, Europe or South America.

The new system has proven itself with well-received products such as the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Malibu, Chevy Camaro and Cadillac CTS, Stephens says. He wants to stay the course. He says the product plans put in place by Lutz will work, given time and proper execution.

And part of his plan is to get the customer involved in design, by providing--as the Scion and Mini brands have--an attractive basic vehicle package that 20-somethings want to personalize with aftermarket gear.

"We need to make sure we understand that entire spectrum of 20-year-olds and have the kind of cars that appeal to them," Stephens says. To cater to these customers, he says, he will ensure that GM's new cars and trucks "are very adaptable to personalization."

For the next three years or so, Stephens will be caretaker to Lutz's legacy, a role he appears content to play. But he also will begin to oversee redesigns of the Chevrolet Impala and the Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia midsize crossovers, and the adaptation of the Chevy Volt's plug-in hybrid power train to one or two new models.

In fact, terms of the government bailout preclude drastic short-term changes, even if Stephens were so inclined. In April, GM submitted its plan for future products to the federal automotive task force. It's part of GM's viability plan, and it required federal approval.

"That's the product plan I intend to execute, and I'm OK with that," Stephens says.

Change in style

Although the product message is continuity from the Lutz era, the messenger is vastly different.

Lutz is a natural showman who seems to get a jolt of adrenaline from a microphone or TV camera. The former Marine pilot speaks five languages and can hold his own with David Letterman. He has been an enthusiastic pitchman for GM products around the world.

By contrast, Stephens is soft-spoken and sometimes falls into scripted GM-speak. He pilots a boat on a lake in his spare time--not, like Lutz, a Soviet-era military jet over the skies of Detroit. He hasn't served time in one of GM's sprawling overseas operations.

When Stephens finds himself surrounded by microphones, cameras and dozens of jostling reporters, he often slips into "formal Tom" mode. Instead of a pithy sound bite, he's likely to deliver a dissertation.

David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, says GM needs an executive who can be the spokesman for the company's products.

"Before Lutz, GM had no passion for cars," Champion says. "Whether GM has a different person for each of the brands or a single person, they do need someone who is the face of General Motors, a face that shows a passion and a direction."

Perhaps the role of product chief spokesman will fall to Ed Welburn, the soft-spoken, dapper design chief. If a new "Mr. Outside" surfaces, that would allow Stephens to be "Mr. Inside," a role that suits him.

Power train expert

Stephens has never been responsible for the creation of an entire vehicle. And he hasn't spent a minute working in marketing. Still, he relishes the new assignment.

"I figured out early what I love to do," he said. "I love to work on motorized vehicles. I love to drive, and I love to make things better. I am never satisfied with the way it is. It's always going to be torn down and redone."

He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of power trains, and that's how he won his stripes at GM: improving power trains and vehicle platforms.

He joined the company in 1969 as an hourly trainee in Chevrolet's engineering center. After a series of engineering positions, he was elected a GM vice president in 1994. Stephens joined the company's senior management ranks in 2001, when he was named group vice president for GM Global Powertrains.

Over the years, Stephens has guided a number of engine programs to successful launches:

-- The Northstar V-8: The Northstar, still in production after 16 years, was the company's first overhead-cam engine that could compete with the best of the imports.

-- The Duramax diesel: This bulletproof truck engine helped bury GM's reputation for building shoddy diesels. A new, smaller Duramax--currently on hold because of GM's financial problems--rewrites the book on engine design by eliminating intake and exhaust manifolds.

-- Direct injection: GM wasn't the first automaker with this technology, but it has rolled it out aggressively in four- and six-cylinder engines.

With these and some other technical innovations, GM has a fighting chance to meet the federal government's 35.5 mpg corporate average fuel economy mandate for 2016. And the key to it all has been kaizen--step-by-step improvement rather than a technological Great Leap Forward.


On a typical day, Stephens is out of the house at 5:30 a.m. and back again around 9 p.m. Stephens admits his family life suffers because of his long hours. He often works weekends, either at home or in one of his three Michigan offices at GM's powertrain headquarters in Pontiac, GM's Technical Center in Warren or in GM's headquarters in downtown Detroit.

On Fridays, Stephens tours the design studios twice--first with Lutz and Henderson, then later with Welburn and Bryan Nesbitt, GM's vice president of design.

Lutz plans to stay at GM until the end of the year as an adviser. Stephens describes his relationship with Lutz as cordial, and he says he will consult Lutz even after he flies off into the sunset.

"I can always call Bob, and he's always right there," Stephens says. "Let's say he retires at the end of the year--I don't view that he's gone."

Is kaizen enough?

Is kaizen enough to transform the GM product line into a winner? Is more of the same really the answer you're looking for from a company in Chapter 11?

Marketing will help some, GM says. The radical makeover being done in bankruptcy will mean more advertising dollars can be focused on the surviving four brands: Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC.

Ultimately, success will come down to having--and selling, in sufficient quantity--vehicles that people want to buy.

To help make that happen, says one sales veteran, Stephens should just keep on doing what he does best--questioning, tinkering, improving--and not try to match his predecessor in the sound bite department.

Gary Dilts, former Chrysler sales chief and now a senior vice president at J.D. Power and Associates, says Stephens is a great choice to take over for Lutz.

"Lutz rallied a lot of spirit and put a lot of confidence back into the product development group," says Dilts. Stephens, he says, is "a great second act," but Dilts warns that Stephens shouldn't try to be a media star:

"Nobody is going to out-Lutz Lutz."

(Source: Automotive News)