Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • GARY L. COWGER (1947-2023)
    GARY L. COWGER

     

    BY SUSAN M. SMYTH
    AND JOHN W. SUTHERLAND

    GARY LELAND COWGER, a leader in the development and implementation of manufacturing technologies within the automotive industry, passed away on Feb. 17, 2023, in Plano, Texas. He was widely recognized for his leadership in establishing the General Motors (GM) global manufacturing system and substantially improving the flexibility, quality, and productivity in automotive manufacturing. He spent more than four decades at GM and served as president of GM North America from 2001 to 2005. He was 75 years old at the time of his passing.

    Gary was born on April 18, 1947, to Glen Leland and Esther (née Smith) Cowger in Kansas City, Kansas. He grew up in Kansas City, loving cars and dreaming of playing baseball at Kansas State University. When he graduated magna cum laude from high school in 1965, he received an invitation to attend the General Motors Institute (GMI; now Kettering University) and began his career in the automotive industry. He married his high school sweetheart, Kay Cheryl, in 1969 and graduated from GMI with his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in 1970.

    Following graduation from GMI, Gary returned to the Fairfax plant where he had worked as a co-op, and by age 25 he was a shift superintendent at the facility. From there he moved on to positions in GM manufacturing with increasing levels of responsibility. He entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1977 as a GM Sloan Fellow; he received his Master of Science degree in management in 1978. Following his graduation from MIT he returned again to the Fairfax plant as the superintendent of the paint facility. From 1979 to 1987 he held several leadership positions in Lansing, Michigan; Wentzville, Missouri; and Lordstown, Ohio. During his assignment as plant manager at the Lordstown assembly plant, Gary conducted successful negotiations with the United Auto Workers union; he exhibited his unique skill in facilitating communication and reducing friction between union and management, which would serve him well in the future.

    In 1987 Gary was named manufacturing manager at Cadillac. In this position, he used his experience and skills to help improve its manufacturing performance. In large part through his efforts, Cadillac received the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award (1990) for its success in markedly enhancing the quality, reliability, durability, and performance of its vehicles.

    In 1994 Gary was sent to GM-Mexico, where he served as president and managing director. This role required him to acquire new skills: managing an entire company and becoming conversant in Spanish. He excelled in the position, increasing vehicle production by a factor of two and making the quality of GM-Mexico one of the highest in the world. In 1998 Gary moved to Germany to serve as chairman and managing director of Adam Opel AG. However, in 1999, he was asked to return to the United States for his most difficult assignment. In large measure he was recalled from Germany because his negotiation skills were desperately needed. He was well known for focusing on “people-processes” and wanting to improve worker conditions. He helped to bring together labor and management and to establish a breakthrough contract. Not long after the agreement was put in place, productivity began to rise. In 2000 he was named the group vice president of North American manufacturing and labor relations. Shortly thereafter he was appointed president of GM North America. In 2005 he was named chief of GM’s global labor relations and manufacturing. He retired from GM in 2009 and started a consultancy: GLC Ventures, which focused on business, manufacturing, and technology strategy.

    Gary had great impact in the field in terms of leadership in manufacturing technology development. As global process leader for manufacturing at GM Corporation, he led the development and implementation of the GM global manufacturing system (GMS) throughout the company’s facilities worldwide. GMS was a global strategy in which GM designed its products, created compatible plant layouts, selected equipment, and designed each assembly plant operator’s job. This process development saved billions of dollars in both person-hours worked and supplier costs.

    Gary worked with researchers at the University of Michigan to reduce variation in auto body assembly, which focused on improving final fit and finish and enhancing product quality. Furthermore, under his leadership, GM developed the C-Flex tooling technology, which enabled auto body assembly flexibility for GM plants. Because of his leadership in the late 1990s and early 2000s, GM’s overall manufacturing productivity improved radically, and GM plants were recognized as some of the best in initial quality in North America and globally.

    In addition to his many business leadership roles at GM, Gary had a unique passion for technology. As the automotive industry moved from a focus on mechanical systems and internal combustion engines, he was quick to recognize GM’s need to develop revolutionary manufacturing technology. Central to this effort was fundamental research and development (R&D) to enable the use of new materials and new products. For example, the state-of-the-art tools in traditional body shop welding were simply incapable of producing a battery system. They could neither join the copper connections nor achieve the levels of accuracy required for electrical connections. The focus of advanced manufacturing needed to expand beyond cost reduction and productivity improvements and ramp up to an era of inventing new tools, equipment, and processes to enable the new products.

    Gary focused on rebuilding the advanced manufacturing capability at GM and supported the growth of internal R&D capabilities focused solely on manufacturing. The charter of this organization was to create manufacturing systems to build the new products, such as battery-powered and lightweight vehicles, which were literally unbuildable with the existing commercial manufacturing systems. The challenge was to “build the unbuildable” and to do so at competitive throughput and cost levels while maintaining exceptional levels of quality.

    Some of the technology developed under his leadership included world-first inventions in joining and error detection for battery assembly, lightweighting inventions to enable the same equipment to weld aluminum and steel, flexible robotic systems, and reconfigurable manufacturing together with big data analytics systems to enable data-driven decisions from launch optimization to option selections.

    Gary was recognized by many for his technical contributions and professional leadership within the automotive industry. He received the S.M. Wu Foundation’s Manufacturing Leadership Award (2001), Society of Automotive Engineers’ Manufacturing Leadership Award (2003), Automotive Industries’ Executive of the Year (2004), and M. Eugene Merchant Manufacturing Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Society of Manufacturing Engineers (2010). He was also a Stanford University Fellow (2006), and he was awarded honorary doctorates from Lindenwood University in 2002 and Kettering University in 2007. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2006.

    Gary was very active in the community, both during and after his GM career. He was chair of the Board of Trustees at Kettering University and served on the boards of directors of Delphi Corporation, the College for Creative Studies, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He also contributed to Detroit by serving on several boards, including Focus: HOPE. Above and beyond his contributions to societies and groups, Gary served as a mentor to many individuals who benefited from his insight and wisdom in advancing their careers.

    Gary will be fondly remembered by those who knew him for his passion for two things: his family and cars. His early love of cars placed him on a successful career path at GM. He is survived by his wife Kay, his son Christopher, and four grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his daughter, Melinda Cowger Narvaez, and a grandson.