After 15 years of dedicated leadership, Wil Cooksey retired as the Corvette's Bowling Green Assembly Plant Manager in late 2007. Taking his place is longtime GM employee Paul Graham. Graham comes to the Bowling Green facility from Kansas City, where he was assistant manager of the Fairfax Assembly Plant. We caught up with him at the recent National Corvette Museum C5/C6 Birthday Bash, where he was gracious enough to answer a few of our questions.
Vette Magazine: Can you give our readers a little background on your career before you came to Bowling Green?
Paul Graham: The Fairfax Plant builds midsize cars; I was in that job for two years. We used to build the old-generation Malibu, then we launched the Saturn Aura, and then the new Malibu. They are very similar cars, but the company made them unique and different, and they have been very well received in the marketplace. It was a great effort between engineering, design, and manufacturing to launch that product [line].
VM: Before that assignment, you spent most of your career in the passenger-car line.
PG: No, actually Corvette is only my second passenger-car assignment. Before that, I spent my career in trucks. I started out building fullsize trucks in Flint, Michigan, in 1980. The plant was located right next door to where they built the first 300 Corvettes in 1953. Next, I went to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to work on fullsize trucks. Then I moved to Pontiac, Michigan, to work in our central engineering office, developing equipment to repair trucks in body shops.
From Pontiac, my next move was to Baltimore, where I worked on midsize vans. I met my wife in Detroit, but we got married during my assignment in Baltimore. After Baltimore, we moved back to Fort Wayne to launch a new fullsize truck. I was given a great opportunity to move to Silao, Mexico, where we have a truck plant. I was involved in launching the previous-generation truck line, as well as participating in the expansion of the facility.
VM: Where did you grow up?
PG: I grew up in little town called Richmond, Michigan. My dad was really into cars, and at a very young age, my brothers and I were already helping him on various projects. As we got older, we worked on our own cars, including my '59 six-cylinder Bel Air sedan. I helped friends rebuild their motors at my dad's house on the weekends.
VM: What brought you to GM?
PG: In high school I really liked science and math, and I got accepted to the General Motors Institute. By the time I graduated, I had spent time as a co-op in every department at an assem-bly plant. I really support that type of learning experience.
VM: You've been with GM for about 25 years. Have you ever owned a Corvette?
PG: I have never owned a Corvette, but throughout my career, I have always recognized it to be one of the company's halo cars. It's the flagship of the Chevy brand. Many of our innovative engineering achievements were showcased first in Corvette. The car has always played a leadership role in introducing new technology within the corporation.
VM: What was your reaction when you were offered the Corvette plant-manager job?
PG: One of the first things I was asked was, will I be comfortable talking to large groups? In most plants, managers attend community events, but they usually have little interface with customers. In this job, I'm learning about the Corvette family, like the Wil Cooksey event we attended at the convention center. This is a new and exciting experience for me, and I'm enjoying it.
VM: Corvette owners are a very passionate group; they love the car and the image of the car and will do everything they can do to preserve them. How do you feel about that?
PG: When you talk about Corvette customers, you have everything from collectors who have 10 or more vehicles to people who own one car. To some, this is really their dream car. I met a gentleman last night who came to Bowling Green with his son-in-law. He was in his early sixties, and he had just purchased his first Corvette. He had always wanted one, and his wife was able to make it happen for him. He was so enthused about it, and you could tell it was always something he had dreamed about. Now, finally, he was able to make it a reality. That made a positive impression on me.
VM: That's probably a little different from what you found in passenger cars and trucks?
PG: Yes, and that was one of things that I knew was going to be different here.
VM: What do you think your challenges will be in your new position?
PG: A lot of the Corvette assembly process is very similar to what I've experienced in past jobs. For example, Corvette uses a lot of bonding adhesives in its structure. This same technology is used in passenger cars as well, in place of welding. Corvette has some unique assembly processes that I'm going to pay attention to, but we have great people at the plant to bring me up to speed.
In general, I'm pretty knowledgeable about the production process, so I'm comfortable assuming this new role. My biggest day-to-day challenge will be to work on continuous improvement. The quality numbers are outstanding, but we can always find ways to improve the car. That's our goal: to make it better, and this is the area I will be concentrating on. The detail we're looking at is much finer, but we want to continue driving toward that goal of world-class fit and finish.
VM: Does Corvette's long production cycle make continuous improvement more difficult?
PG: When you have a [shorter] life cycle, you have more opportunities to make more changes, and you have a lot more engineering resources available at the time of the change. However, with Corvette, I saw a big improvement in the '08, and the cooperation we have between engineering and the plant is huge. I see this continuing for future models.
VM: You are also responsible for the Cadillac XLR.
PG: Yes, that's also part of my responsibility, and we will continue to improve that product as well.
VM: Do you anticipate a big challenge building the new ZR1?
PG: No. One thing about Bowling Green is that the personnel are used to building a number of different models. We think the ZR1 will be another great Corvette.
VM: Your wife is an engineer.
PG: Yes, my wife, Marian, also went to GMI and is a mechanical engineer. She received her MBA from the University of Michigan. Right now, she's a stay-at-home mom for our two children, Rachel and David.
VM: Did she work for GM as well?
PG: Yes, she worked for the GM group that designs and builds facilities. In her single days she owned a Corvette. I'm now driving a silver '09 convertible, and I know she will enjoy tooling around in it when she gets to Bowling Green.