Car Culture

Hey Joe Lawrence, how did you get to be the COO of Porsche?

Joe Lawrence is living the dream: Building Porsches and driving one on the daily.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

If you look at Joe Lawrence's resume you'll see an eclectic mix of automotive jobs. Car salesman? Yep. Product Training Specialist at Nissan? Yeah, that's on there too. You'll even find 6 Series Communications Manager as well as Director of Marketing at BMW. At the top of the page is his current job, Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer at Porsche Cars, North America.

So how does a guy from El Paso, Texas go from selling cars at a Ford dealership to being the head honcho at Porsche? It started with education. Lawrence has a BA in Economics from Southern Methodist University in Dallas Texas and an MBA from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. I sat down with Lawrence at the Los Angeles Auto Show to hear the rest of the story.

What was your first car?

Lawrence: The first car that I actually paid for myself was a 1991 Nissan SentraSentra SE-R. I was working for Nissan and I had that as a lease car. It was a neat car as Nissan marketed it as a modern BMW 2002. It was a hopped up Sentra with a high-revving 1.8-liter engine with a manual.

What was your first automotive job, and how did you get it?

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I sold cars at a Ford dealership in my hometown of El Paso for one summer during college and then I sold cars right out of school in Santa Fe. That was a small-town dealership with six different brands. One was Porsche but to my everlasting regret I can not say that I actually sold a Porsche. We only sold like two of them a year. Regardless, I wouldn't trade that experience for the world. It's paid a lot of dividends throughout my career because it's very important to have had that direct experience selling cars to customers. I think it's a very powerful experience to have as you progress in the automotive industry.

I got my first corporate job at Nissan after college. I interviewed on campus at SMU and they didn't have a job at the time for me. I kept in touch but nothing happened so I moved out to Santa Fe and started selling cars. Six months later they had customer relations job. It was on the phone, taking calls mostly about something that went wrong. It was a tough job but a great foundational experience.

Take me through an average work day.

Lawrence: If I try to construct a typical day, it starts out driving a Porsche, a 911 Carrera GTS stick shift to our headquarters, which is a super cool shrine to Porsche with a track in the backyard. So yeah, my day always starts out well.

Obviously meetings are a big part of my work. I could be in meetings for sales programs or market representation with our dealers. I could be on the phone with Germany about our production. Lunch is interesting as I wander down to the cafeteria and grab a seat with whoever is available and get some cross-department conversation going. I like to manage by walking around as much as possible.

Lately we've been doing a lot of dealer grand openings. Many dealers have been upgrading and expanding so I make an appearance and give a speech.

What is the most tedious thing about your current job?

Wading through junk mail. Ads, people pitching me stuff ... I never read it. I get probably 100 emails a day and maybe half are worthwhile. However, I recognize that a lot of people have it worse and I have a great team that covers for me.

How does tech affect the future of your job?

Lawrence: It's really more about how does technology affect the auto industry. It's such a big topic of discussion right now. It used to be that in product planning you would ask, "Which internal combustion engine are we going to do in the next model? What should the color palette be? Should we include leather seating?" These were big topics. Now we are dealing with electrification and autonomy and connectedness and it's a whole different ball game.

All across our operation there are really big questions out there. Now we have the Porsche Passport subscription service. Electric vehicles are here in Porsche and there is more to come, there is no doubt about it. We embrace it. We don't fear autonomy. We think it's a great opportunity, but Porsches will always have a steering wheel. First and foremost we offer an engaged driving experience like we always have, but we can offer autonomy at the same time. It's not a huge weight albatross on the car.

It's a challenging and kind of scary time but there has never been a more exciting time in the industry.

What automotive trend makes your blood boil?

Texting and driving. That is just the worst and it has to stop. I'm amazed driving around what you see on the road today. It's awful. I keep my phone in my suit coat pocket, which is hanging on the back of my seat. The interface in Porsche is not distracting, especially in the new Panamera and Cayenne. We recognize that it's important to keep your eyes on the road. That German autobahn heritage is evident in all the cars we build.

What is the one project you've always wanted to tackle professionally but have never been able to do?

As an executive team we have something called Operation Dealer Insight. We spend five days at a dealership working alongside everyone, indoctrinating ourselves into that world. It's cool but it's only five days and for me, I often wonder about actually running a dealership. I would love to be able to relate even more to our dealers in terms of the challenges of their daily life.

If you weren't working in the automotive industry, what would you be doing?

Skiing for fun and probably teaching at a University -- perhaps a business school.