By Claudette de la Haye
Caribbean Financial Network News
DETROIT, USA -- Ralph Gilles, the highest ranking Caribbean auto executive kicked off the 2016 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) with an exclusive interview with Caribbean News Now contributor Claudette de la Haye.
Ralph Gilles (L) and Claudette de la Haye
The journeys of Ralph Gilles and myself were encapsulated on a cold winter’s day in 2004 at Autonews World Congress and 2004 NAIAS, where a nervous journalist and a reserved car designer met for the first time in an impromptu interview. Twelve years later Ralph Gilles is head of global design, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Group (FCA), and I am the founder and executive editor of Caribbean Financial Network News.
Gilles spoke candidly of his FCA past, present and future, and of Caribbean children dreaming big in the Diaspora.
Gilles, an immigrant born to Haitian parents was brought to New York. He was eventually raised in Montreal by his aunt within the frigid confines of Canada’s highly populated Caribbean community who don’t mind living in such chilly climates.
Growing up, his strict mother and father stressed education; meanwhile his aunt noticed her nephew was talented at drawing. In her infinite wisdom she wrote to then chairman of Chrysler, Lee Iacocca.
A reply was sent recommending three schools and the Center for Creative Studies, Detroit, Michigan, was chosen, from where he graduated in industrial design and was hired by Chrysler in 1992, and then later attained his MBA. Today, as of April 1, 2015, Ralph Gilles stands as head of global design for FCA.
At FCA, Gilles honed and crafted his skills, designing the Chrysler 300 M Series, SRT Hellcat, Viper and others. It was Gilles who gave me the start in my career in 2004 in my first interview while we were in mid to late thirties.
A lot has happened since 2004, so I asked Gilles a few questions:
Q: Tell me about the transition of old Chrysler to new Chrysler.
A: During those days we were obviously still with Daimler (historic merger of equals era of Daimler-Chrysler 1998 - 2007) Then, we went with a private equity firm service for a couple of years and now we’re with Fiat Chrysler and that has been awesome. 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 collaborative. 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.
Q: And, speaking of Italian. How does it feel to be working for your boss Sergio Marchionne and, what’s his style of management and, how has that fit in with your growth with (Chrysler) FCA?
A: Well, he’s nothing short of a genius and with all geniuses there comes – and 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 administrator in banking. He’s also a lawyer and has a law degree and also a psychology 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.
Q: Word on the street is that Sergio can literally smell money leaving the building.
A: Yes, 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. So, I have to say that the minute that I met him in about 2009 he had a twinkle in his eye, “yeah, like I can see something in this place.” Like he hadn’t even scratched the surface but he saw Chrysler had the potential. So, we are just now seeing the fruits of our labour.
Q: So tell me, with your Caribbean heritage and corporate savvy as you grow with (Chrysler) FCA, you’re the highest ranking Caribbean 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?
A: 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 served 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 ten years to being the Mecca for technology. Every technology imaginable is now embedded 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.
Q: So what do you have to say to the children that are growing up in the Caribbean and speak to their aspirations of one day becoming a designer, mechanic, engineer or computer scientist?
A: 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 US, 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.
Q: Have your parents ever asked you to give back or return their investment for bringing you up?
A: Oh, all the time. I did buy my mum a brand new Town & Country for her last birthday and she absolutely loves it.
Q: Oh wow! So, what about the Chrysler-Fiat brand? What are they offering this year to the North American International Auto Show?
A: Well, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the new Chrysler Pacifica. It’s our new minivan. 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 windshield, the sidelines, the spoilers, the componentry. Everything about the van is new and, I think the minivan is an awesome 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.
If you have any questions for Ralph Gilles please, feel free to write them in the “Comments”.
As an Industrial, Environmental and Architectural Designer myself I remain a big fan of yours. Congratulations Ralph Gilles on your achievement; you can still go higher. Robin Mathew declared and I quote Design is where science and art break even. You did it brother and I am proud of you. Your wisdom and simplicity will take you very far.
As a matter of fact some young Haitians are eager to excel in the curriculum of Industrial Design. Would you consider being a part of the first Design School in Haiti? Your expertise will be an asset. The goal is to start with simple concept, simple objects and improve them as the years go by. I am aware and understand that you are a busy man. However we have a responsibility to give back to the nation. They have the taste to innovate; all they need is guidance. I have some examples for you below, just take a look.
Autocar made in HaÃ¯ti
First Bus Made In Haiti By Jean-Paul Coutard
Haitian Mechanic Professor Built 3 Automobiles in Jacmel/Haiti.
User comments posted on this website are the sole views and opinions of the comment author and are not representative of Caribbean News Now or its staff. Caribbean News Now accepts no liability and will not be held accountable for user comments.
Caribbean News Now reserves the right to remove, edit or censor any comments. Any content that is considered unsuitable, unlawful or offensive, includes personal details, advertises or promotes products, services or websites or repeats previous comments will not be approved.