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Chevrolet Corvette Assembly Plant Manager Interview - Personality Profile: Wil Cooksey

Team VETTE Talks With The Corvette Assembly Plant Manager

Bob Wallace Dec 1, 2000
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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.

Lo and behold, the Vietnam War was going on at that time, and so they tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I'd report to Texas for the draft. And so I said, "Oh my goodness." I'd gotten married to my wife, Elizabeth Walton, while I was in school, and she was with me at that time. I hated to have to leave her and to put my engineering career at General Mills on hold. I went down and talked to a recruiter and said, "I'd like to go into Officer's Candidate School. If I have to go in, I'd like to be an officer." They said, "No problem." So, I signed up.

I went into OCS and ended up being an artillery officer. I did basic and advanced training, and officer school, in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the rest of it out in California, at Fort Irwin. From there I was ordered to Vietnam. Elizabeth went back to Memphis and I went over as a second lieutenant, as an individual replacement.

I'll never forget the day I reported over there. I got off a plane in 'Nam without any combat gear and they were shooting rockets into the airfield and we were running around in civilian clothes, trying to find cover. I said, "Boy this is no way to enter a combat zone!" We made it okay and I spent a year over there ('68 and '69). I was still looking at those dreams, looking at the car magazines that came our way. I said, "Boy, if I get back out of this mess, I should have some money saved and I'm gonna get myself a nice sports car."

So when I came back, I went shopping and got a black '69 Corvette. That was the car of choice-I'd finally made up my mind what it was going to be! That was flying low. I may not be able to fly in the air, but I was flyin' low with that '69!

VETTE: Was it a big-block or a small-block?

WC: Unfortunately, it was a small-block. But I used to wind it up, and it was fast for me.

I went back to work for General Mills, picked up where I left off. I got into grad school at the University of Toledo, where the General Mills plant that I worked at was. I earned my masters degree.

Around that time, General Mills, er, General Motors-they're the same initials, GM-came to me and asked me if I'd be interested in coming to work for them: "We have an institute up in Flint, Michigan, and we'd like to bring you in on the faculty and have you teach on quality and reliability." I was doing a lot of that where I was. I said, "I got a great job, but I'll come up and take a look" I was interested in finding out what kind of school was up there, how the school was.

I took my wife up and looked around at everything, and I was so impressed that, when I got back I said, "Well, I guess maybe I do want to go to work for this outfit, for a while, anyway." But I told them (they knew about my love for Corvettes), "You know, I'd like to work for the Corvette plant one day; I don't want to teach all my life. I can do this stuff, but it's not what I went to school for. I'd rather be on production management, I'd rather be where they're building Corvettes."

So they told me, "If you come on the faculty for a period of time-we're not going to tell you for how long, because we may be able to do something for you after a few years, we don't know-but trust us, we'll help you leave there and go into the production assembly plant where Corvettes are built, if that's what you want."

So, I took 'em up on that-it was a gentlemen's agreement-and taught at the institute from '72 to '76. I got one promotion, from assistant to associate professor. During that time, I entered a doctoral program at Michigan State, in mechanical engineering and systems analysis; did all the course work, the comps, was well on my way. I was working on my dissertation when they came to me one day and said, "Wil, are you ready to go?

I said, "Whoa, wait a minute, ready to go? After this time?"

"Yeah, you can pick where you want to go. We don't know if this opportunity will be here later, but it's here, now. You always said you wanted the opportunity."

"Okay, how about the Corvette plant, then? How about where the Corvettes are being built?"

And they told me, "We think we could work that out. Now that's one of our larger facilities, and it's a tougher job. But, if you feel you're really up for that, your first plant in General Motors that you're going to work at, you really want that?"

And I said, "Yeah, I want to go right where the Corvettes are!" So they set me up and transferred me in there, in St. Louis, in '76. They got me close. I was on the passenger car line where the Caprices were built at that time. I was a shift superintendent, on chassis.

We had a truck line there, and a Corvette line; Corvette was behind the old coal pile there in St. Louis. Eventually, we lost that product, the Caprice, and I had to be relocated. I figured maybe that was my chance to go to Corvette, since I was that close. There was a choice; they could either send me to truck or Corvette. I spent some time in the truck quality department, working for the quality manager. Then, a materials superintendent job became available in Corvette, and I finally got my chance to be in the Corvette operations, around the Corvette! I was in charge of all the material operations. Man, this was a great job! Finally, I'd managed to get myself into the Corvette operation.

I stayed there until 1980, when an opportunity came up for me in Georgia. They wanted a chassis-background manager at the Doraville assembly plant. I went down and interviewed, and they said, "You're the guy we'd like to have down here to help us start up a second shift." I'd gotten this close to Corvette, but figured that the move was best for my career. I'd wanted to eventually work my way up through the organization and get to "product." I figured that if they were telling me this was a good way to go, I'd do it.

I went to Doraville as a shift superintendent in production and worked my way up through various jobs there and ended up as production manager at the facility. I'm one of the fortunate guys who was able to go in and work my way up almost to the number one job; I was in the number two job at that facility.

But, I was still thinking about Corvettes, wanting to eventually get there. I said to myself, "Maybe one of these days I'll get the opportunity to get back to Corvette." Vice President Joe Spielman was in charge of the group I was in at that time, and he and the plant manager were really good friends. Joe came to him and told him that he needed me at another facility, that he thought I could really help turn things around. I was hoping it would be Corvette, but it was Kansas City. I took the transfer to Kansas City and stayed there as the number two man, production manager, for a couple of years.

Then, in 1993, Joe came back and said, "Would you like to be plant manager of Corvette operations?" That was my dream come true! It's been great ever since. I have the best job in General Motors, without a doubt! No one else has as much fun on their job as I do. The rest of my plant manager friends, they don't have this kind of enthusiasm and fun around their jobs. I'm not going to say they don't have some enthusiasm, but not as much as Corvette. Corvette is really and truly an American icon. When you think of General Motors, when you think of the best vehicle General Motors has, the first thing that comes to your mind is, "Corvette!" I sit here and think, "Hey, I have a part of this, something to do with the image. I'm a caretaker for the brand."

It gives the job a whole new meaning. I know that if and when I leave, when I retire, like the others before me who've had the distinct privilege of having this job, I can look back and think, "Here are the contributions I was able to make to this American icon." I feel real proud of what we've been able to do here during my tenure. It's real exhilarating when the customers come to us and tell us about their experiences. They'll come up and say, "I just bought a new Corvette, and it's the best Corvette that I've ever purchased!" That makes me feel real good.

I remember when I came to Corvette, that was not the message that people were giving us. We've worked hard here over the last seven years, focusing on quality, to make certain that the customers feel real good about their purchases, to feel that they've done the right thing by buying a Corvette.

VETTE: It sounds as though Wil Cooksey has no desire to move along.

WC: I made it home! A lot of my plant manager buddies ask me, "When are you leaving Corvette? I want that job!" I say, "Hey, I'm not gonna leave. I came to work for General Motors to work at this Corvette plant." That was on my mind the first day I looked at changing jobs from my other company: Corvettes are made at General Motors, maybe one day I'll work there. So this is a dream come true.

VETTE: This may be a loaded question, but what if someone from the top at Renaissance Center came along and dangled a Vice Presidency?

WC: There's a lot of jobs that probably pay more money, but I really, truly believe that there's not a better job in General Motors than the one I've got! There are probably some other areas at General Motors where, with my talents, I could be beneficial. But, I've invested a lot of time and want to stay with it. What I'd like to do is see the next generation Corvette while I'm here. To tell you the truth, when we were bringing out the fifth generation, I said, "Boy, no one should have to go through two of these." (laughs) I tell you, we were all stressed out, because we knew the expectations were going to be high. We knew we'd better be right! There was a lot of pressure on everybody: engineering, the plant, the suppliers, you name it. And here I am today, telling you I'm interested in another generation of Corvette. We learned some lessons from the last time, and we'll make the next generation even better.

VETTE: Earlier, you mentioned your first Corvette, the '69. What are your favorite cars?

WC: Naturally, you know Corvettes are! I like the C5 convertible-it's the most rigid convertible I've ever driven. You don't have all that body shimmy. I think everybody, if they can afford it, ought to have two Corvettes: a convertible and a targa, where you can lift the top off. I have a '93 Ruby Red 40th Anniversary. It was the first car I drove as plant manager, so I kept it. I'd already ordered it before I got the job as plant manager, so I told them, "Hey, I got a new Corvette being built, just hold it up, don't ship it 'cause I'll take it when I get there." I also have a '99 convertible, Navy Blue with Light Oak interior and top, and magnesium wheels. Then I have the race car you saw in the Museum, the one you had a picture of in your magazine a few months ago.

VETTE: Is that your first race car?

WC: The first drag racing I was able to do was with a '72 convertible. It had both tops. I had the engine rebuilt by Lamar Walden, in Doraville, Georgia. I told him I wanted about 500 horses, and he did it. I ran low 13s in it. It was pretty awesome. I got used to that kind of power. I thought I could just go out and purchase a Corvette race car, but as big as I am, that couldn't happen.

Instead, I bought a 9-second Camaro race car and still had the '72 Corvette. Man, the Camaro was nice! I said, "I need to figure out how to put a Corvette body on this race chassis." I never could find one that would fit on the Camaro's tube frame.

So I decided to start a project. Lamar Walden built the engine. The chassis was built by a guy named Eubanks, who's in Huntington, Tennessee. He's a pretty good craftsman. He built the chassis up from chrome moly, powdercoated it red. He was cutting and fitting, so I could get in. He said, "I'll get you in a Corvette." And he finally got me in there. You have to have a special technique to crawl in and out of my Corvette, and I know how to do it, 'cause we built it from the ground up. It's a bored-out 454-I didn't want to go too big. It's got a fogger nitrous system. It runs high 8s with it, in the mid-9s at 150 without, which is decent enough. The paint job was done by a local guy, and the artwork was done in Louisville. The guys did some excellent work. It turns a lot of heads and sounds good, like thunder.

VETTE: Tell us about the Bowling Green plant?

WC: It's on 240 acres-there's a million square feet. We have just over 1,000 employees-roughly 125 are salaried, the rest of them are hourly.

We have a lot of sub-assembly equipment here. We get door shells, and assemble them here. The suspension comes in parts, and we build it up. The engines come in assembled and we finish dressing them out, adding all the accessories on an engine line here. We take subassemblies and build them, as opposed to getting in modules. We build the instrument panels from scratch, the whole cockpit. We get the individual body panels, get them ready, then put that beautiful paint job on them. We get the hydroformed frame rails in pieces, individual rails for each side, and the bumper bars and other parts, from our stamping facility, then we take the multiple pieces and weld them together to create the chassis.

VETTE: How about the quality? The reputation on older Corvettes wasn't too good.

WC: That was one of the things that really bothered me when I came, but since my background was in quality, teaching it and living it in another company, I knew that if I could do anything that would be appreciated, it would be to raise the bar on quality. I had to understand where the quality problems were coming from. I found out that there were things that had to be looked at from an engineering standpoint, and some from a supplier quality standpoint, because the parts coming in left something to be desired in terms of consistent quality, and we left a bit to be desired from a manufacturing and assembly standpoint, too.

I learned that if you get all the parties involved as early as possible, then you can start talking beforehand about what the concerns may be and address them, and design around them, if that's an issue, where you say, "I can't put this together. I'm going to have a problem putting this together in a quality manner." Then maybe it's not too late. You can change things by getting people involved early, you can change designs, where people can "get up in there" and do it right. A supplier might look at a design and say, "I don't know if I can give you the quality you have to have; can you change it like so." When you have a dialog going between engineering, the suppliers, and the plant, you can improve the quality, tremendously.

That's what we did with C5. We were talking to each other early about things that might affect quality or reliability. We continue to work on things as they come up, but at least we've learned to work together. The customers have benefited, and so has General Motors.

VETTE: There's quite a high level of esprit de corps at this plant.

WC: Enthusiasm is very high throughout. This is a special group. We're family, here. We all get out and talk to our customers; the customers talk to our employees. Two-way conversations are going on all the time. We feed the information from customer letters back to the employees, both good and bad. Most of the letters are good, but if we get something we can do something about, we tell the customers, "We appreciate your bringing this to our attention." And then we do something about it.

You've have to have employee enthusiasm. Whether it's running an airline, a cruise ship, or a bank, if you don't have employee enthusiasm, you're not going to do a very good job. We've worked hard at creating it, plus our wonderful customers, they help us, too, because they bring so much enthusiasm to us when they come visit or write those letters. It gives the people here a lot of energy to carry on. There's not a lot of boredom here, it's a lot of fun. A lot of our people came to Corvette 'cause they wanted to work at a place where people have a lot of enthusiasm for the product they're building. I've got a long list of people who want to come to Corvette.

VETTE: How much of that is because of the product, and how much is because of what you've done?

WC: That's a good question. They'll tell you they've heard about the work environment, about the relationship between management and the union, and how good it is. See, you have to have good relationships between management and the union leadership in a facility to set the pace. We've got a great working relationship at this factory. We walk and talk together, we try to make certain we set the right examples, make ourselves available to talk to the people. I'm out there on the floor, talking with the people just about every day I'm around. They really appreciate that. I tell them that if you see me coming through there and you got a question, a concern, stop me, say something. There's not a lot of work environments where the plant manager will stop, will take time out of his schedule and answer questions. I'll stop any time one of the employees asks me to. If I'm on the way to a meeting, and I got a few minutes to make that meeting, and an employee says, "Hey, Wil, you got a minute? I'll stop, even if I'm a little late for that meeting, and I'll tell 'em. "Hey, I'm trying to get to a meeting, but what's up, how you doin'? Anything I can do to help you?" And they'll say, "How about comin' back by here when you come back from the meeting?" I'll stop anytime they ask me to stop. That's the kind of environment I'd like to work in if I was out there putting parts on the cars. If I was out there and wanted to talk to the plant manager, I'd hope that he'd make himself available to be there

And the plant manager needs that kind of input from the people-at least I do! You need to know what they're thinking about, are we doing the right thing? That's what makes this place unique and different. You're not going to go to a lot of plants and find that the management group is making themselves available, the way we make ourselves available here at Corvette. I take a lot of pride in supporting a good work environment, in improving and supporting communications-that's what you gotta do. We're all one big team. We're not a plant manager and some person putting on the parts, we're the Corvette team! We all have fun.

I've had some people come up to see me in the office and say, "This is the first time we've ever been in the plant manager's office. It was off limits, previously." I say, "Hey, come up anytime you want. You got something you want to talk about, feel free to do so." You know, that's the kind of atmosphere you want to work in. We're all one big family, here.

VETTE: You've mentioned your wife, Elizabeth. Tell us about the rest of your family.

WC: I've got a son, David. He graduated from the University of Kansas. He likes Corvettes, too, by the way. I've got a daughter here, Crissy, who's at Western Kentucky University. She's going to be a schoolteacher. I have one grandkid, Catrina. She's terrific, four-years-old, going on 40.

VETTE: Wil, we've already gone over the time you'd set aside for this. Any last comments?

WC: I really enjoy it, I like what I do! I'm looking to stay here until I retire. I don't think anything else General Motors has is better. Maybe they'll find something, but I don't know about it, yet. (laughs)

VETTE: Thanks for spending this time with us, Wil.

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