If someone asked me to describe a "plant manager," I'd probably be inclined to characterize such a person as an upper management, bureaucratic drone; a humorless functionary whose face is almost consistently buried in production efficiency reports or trying to find some new way to cut costs per unit by a penny or two. Actually, considering my warped sense of humor (?), I'd probably pop off with some comment about a plant manager being a person who takes care of the flowers and shrubs at a nursery.
Wil Cooksey, Plant Manager at GM's North America Car Group Bowling Green Plant, certainly doesn't fit my stereotypes of a corporate bureaucrat. He's a soft-spoken giant of a man (6-feet, 5-inches tall), and an ardent Corvette lover. When you see him in action at the Corvette assembly plant, it's immediately apparent that he is highly regarded by his peers and those who work under his direction. There's a world of difference between a leader who is genuinely respected by his employees, and one who is feared or disliked. In Wil Cooksey's case, it's admiration and affection, and he returns it in full.
We've wanted, for quite some time, to find out more about the man who runs the plant where every Corvette since late 1981 has been built. In April, while we were in Bowling Green for the C5 Birthday Bash, Wil graciously set aside a couple of hours out of his hectic schedule to talk with Team VETTE. Unfortunately, there is no way to convey on a printed page the enthusiasm and the pride in Wil's voice as we talked. Hopefully, you'll be able to sense this remarkable man's passion through his own words. Here's some of our conversation:
VETTE: Wil, to start off, would you tell us a little about your background?
WC: I was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, and lived not too far from Carswell Air Force Base. One of my dreams was to fly; I wanted to be a pilot. As a kid I used to watch the planes and bombers fly over and I developed a need for flight. Of course, I got so big, so tall, that my dream started to kind of fade some, 'cause I found out that they prefer fighter pilots not be too tall-I'm six-five-and that was pushing the envelope, especially the sitting height.
Later, I started looking at cars. Like any kid I started focusing on fast cars. I watched all the latest sports cars come out, including Corvettes, and like all kids, I said, "One day I hope I can have one of those beautiful cars."
I knew if I was going to do that, I'd have to get a good education. I gave the military some thought as far as what I wanted to do in a career. I graduated high school in 1960, went into college at Tennessee State University in Nashville-not too far from here-and joined the ROTC. I was a pretty sharp guy in ROTC, in Drill Team, and had a number of leadership positions, and was thinking about a career in the military, that maybe I could still fly. I wasn't sure, but thought maybe I could do a little flying, get close to it somehow. Then I finally decided that I wanted to concentrate on engineering, and electrical engineering is what I picked, and I dropped ROTC in my junior year. If I got a degree in electrical engineering, I could go back and pick up the military, if I wanted to do it. Some of my friends were going into different branches of the military, picking up some additional education money that way, and some of them decided to make a career of it. With a college degree, you could go in as an officer. That was impressive 'cause when I was growing up, you just didn't see a lot of minority officers, and I said, "I could probably be an officer one day with this college education."
I graduated in '65 with a bachelor's in double-E and went to work at General Mills as a process engineer and entered a production management program, focusing on the production engineering side of the business. I had a great time with 'em.