DETROIT, Michigan – The journey of Ralph Gilles and myself began on a cold winter’s day in 2004 at Autonews World Congress and 2004 North American International Auto Show where a nervous journalist and a reserved car designer met for the first time in an impromtu interview.
Twelve years later Gilles is head of Global Design Fiat Chrysler
Automobile (FCA) Group and I am the founder and executive editor of Caribbean Financial Network News.
Today, Gilles speaks candidly of his FCA past, present, furture and about Caribbean children dreaming big in the Diaspora.
An immigrant born to Hatian parents and brought to New York, he was eventually raised in Montreal by his aunt within the confines of Canada’s Caribbean community who don’t mind living in such chilly climes.
Growing up his strict mother and father stressed education while his aunt noticed his talent at drawing and wrote to then-chariman Lee Iacocca at Chrysler.
A reply was sent recommending three schools. Centre for Creative Studies in Detroit was chosen where he graduated in industrial design and was hired by Chrysler in 1992. Later, he earned his MBA.
At FCA Gilles honed and crafted his skills designing the Chrysler 300 M Series, SRT Hellcat, Viper and others. It was Gilles that gave me my start in my career in 2004 in my first interview.
A lot has happened since 2004 so, I asked Gilles a few questions.
Tell me about the transition of old Chrysler to new Chrysler.
“That has been awsome. It’s been about five and half years and we get along great! It’s been spectacular.
“Both teams are very comfortable. The Italian and American side they get along quite well. The exchanging of information has been just great there’s no ‘this is mine – this is ours stuff’. It’s all been colaborative. And, with that came great products in this company.
“I don’t know if you know but this has been consecutive months in record breaking sales left and right. Plus, the Jeep brand has been absolutely on fire with the product. Also, it finally feels good to see all our hard work pay off. The sales also from our revent conquest have been pheominal.”
And, speaking of Italian, how does it feel to be working for your boss Sergio Marchionne and what’s his syle of management and how has that fit in with your growth with FCA?
“Well, he’s nothing short of a genius and with all geniuses there comes – and there is always another side to a genius; he’s impulsive which I really like a lot. I don’t mind working with a right brain fellow and he really is very creative and at the same time a great administrtor in banking.
“He’s also a lawyer and has a pyschology degree. That’s the part I run into most. He really makes you think introspectively before you go spend money on projects which, I like a lot.”
Word on the street is that Sergio can literally smell money leaving the building.
“Yes, he’s he’s tightened everything up. We’re very efficient now and we had a lot of waste before and we’re able to invest in our plants. Our plants are gorgeous state of the art, especially the one in Brazil.
“He’s really also given us the faith that we can be a global company and we really are becoming that global company overnight again, with the Jeep brand name in charge.”
With your Caribbean heritage and corporate savvyness as you grow with FCA, I hate to brag a lot but you’re the highest ranking Caribben man to date in the industry. How do you feel and where are you at because, I have to honestly ask you, can you see yourself running Chrysler one day?
“ It’s so far from my mind. And, I never predicted the promotion I got. I’m more concerned about doing what I can do in any space.
“I’m still very young. I’m 45 years old and still have a lot to learn more about the industry and the business in general. And I love what I do and I’m very happy for the foundation of humility from my parents which, has severed me well
“ I love my career and I love learning and love being exposed. It’s what I love about the auto business. For those of you there are lots of great jobs in the engineering industry which has really transformed itself in the last 10 years to be the Mecca for technology.
“Every technology imagineble is now embeded in the vehicle; there’s connectivity, self-driving technology, computer-aided design, camera technology, high performance technology, suspension, dynamics and there are so many sciences that you can’t just think of it as a hunk of metal. It’s so much more than that.”
So what do you have to say to the children growing up in the Caribbean and speak to their aspirations of one day becoming a designer, mechanic, engineer or even computers?
“Well, it’s simple Claudette; it’s dreaming big. Dream big! Besides, in The Islands the world is much smaller. I can’t imagine leaving the island and coming to the big America but sometimes you have to displace yourself to the opportunity.
“There’s not just Canada but there’s also the U.S. but not being afraid to venture out and get an education because nobody’s going to do it for you.
“I get a lot of letters saying ‘Oh, I want to do this. I want be something.’ I can’t wave a magic wand and make you a car designer. You have to do the work. For me, I had a choice to go and party or study and I would always go and study while nearly everyone was frolicking around. And, now I’ve got a little bit of money but, it was never given to me.”
Have your parents ever asked you to give back or return their investment?
“ Oh, all the time (laughter by all). I did buy my mum a brand new Town & Country for her last birthday and she abousloutley loves it.”
Oh wow! So, what about the Chrysler Fiat brand? What are they offering this year to the North American International Auto Show?
“I would be remiss if I did not mention the new Chrysler Pacifica. It’s our new mini van. It was truly built from the ground up.
“For me it was a blast because, we were able to architect it the way we wanted like the windsheild, the sidelines the spoilers the components. Everything about the van is new and I think the mini van is an awsome automobile but this one is really quite sexy.
“The marketing and the strategy that has gone into this vehicle – that’s just a little something and, I’m really quite proud of my team and the hard work they put into it.”
By Claudette de la Hay
Caribbean Financial Network News