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United Auto Workers Local 5960 Shop Chairman Mike Dunn (left) and Orion Assembly Plant Manager Alicia Boler-Davis answer questions from the media in Lake Orion, Mich., after touring the facility where 40 percent of the energy required to build the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic and Buick Verano will come from burning gas from a nearby landfill.
"Things have come a long way" - Alicia Boler-Davis
Despite a meteorite rise through the ranks of the automotive industry, Alicia Boler-Davis is not one to rest on her laurels.
At 43, she's the highest-ranking African-American executive women at General Motors (GM) and one of the highest in the auto industry. Now she's tackling a dual role as the company's vice president global quality and U.S. customer experience. But Davis is far more interested in talking about the challenges that lie ahead for her industry than rehashing her past accomplishments.
From Boler-Davis' unique perspective, those challenges encompass enhancing the automaker's customer experience to a level that it keeps customers coming back to company brands (Chevrolet, Chyrsler, Cadillac, Buick and GMC) and advancing the global quality of those brands.
"We know a great experience starts with a great product," said Boler-Davis.
Enhancing those experiences begins with better understanding customers and listening carefully to their wants, needs, realities and complaints and incorporating those "voices into everything we do."
That's done through benchmarks, clinics, external survey and other methods.
"They want us to treat them with respect...in every interaction with them," said Boler-Davis citing dealer transparency, bottom line price and availability of customer service as some of the specifics of what consumers are telling them. "They want to feel special. They want to feel as if they are in a relationship with GM, not just a transaction."
And Boler-Davis is quite frank about progress in this area.
"We are not there yet," she said. "We are competent. We want to be more than competent. We want to lead in this area."
Boler-Davis said her responsibilities are essential to GM continued success.
GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and received billions in a federal bailout. However, the auto giant has had what some analysts call a "phenomenal turnaround." The company reported a record-setting profit of $7.6 billion in 2011.
"Personally I'm very proud of the progress of GM," said Boler-Davis. "We've done a good job learning from our past."
General Motors has gone from being a "drag" on the economy to being a "driver" of the economy, she points out. "We're investing in America, adding jobs. That's good news for the nation and the city."
And she said GM has made a renewed commitment to the city.
Despite GM's stunning rebound, the city of Detroit continues to face financial crisis with officials in June talking about turning off lights in Detroit to save money, the possibility of the city going broke and being taken over by the state.
Boler-Davis said that Detroit and the auto giant have a symbiotic relationship with the city needing GM to be successful and GM needing Detroit to have an improved economic climate.
"It's not them against us," she said. "We are all in this together."
Boler-Davis emphasized that GM is certainly a major economic driver in Detroit, but it is not alone and there are several other corporations such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, which recently moved 1,700 employees from the suburbs to the city, Compuware, Quicken Loans and others that are attempting to help Detroit from a corporate standpoint.
However, Boler-Davis said Detroit's ability to provide basic services needs major improvement. Being able to ensure residents' and visitors' safety as well provide reliable public transportation and trash collection must be priorities.
"We have a lot of work to do," she said.
While GM expects to have a positive economic climate going forward, the city's failing infrastructure is a detriment in the company's recruiting efforts, Boler-Davis said.
And despite words such as "crisis" and "emergency' being used to describe the city's economic situation, Boler-Davis, who resides in a suburb of Detroit, said there's a feeling of optimism in the city where she was born and reared.
Boler-Davis, who holds a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Northwestern University and a master's degree in engineering science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, began her career with GM in 1994 as a manufacturing engineer in Warren, Mich. She later became a plant manager in Michigan and Texas, the first African-American woman to be appointed to that position at a GM vehicle manufacturing plant. Prior to her most recent appointment, she was plant manager of the Orion Assembly and Pontiac Stamping with dual roles as vehicle line director and vehicle chief engineer.
Boler-Davis points to this experience as one of the reasons she's comfortable in her current position, which also has dual responsibilities.
"This is not the first time I've been challenged to do something like this,” she said. "I've demonstrated my ability to take on large assignments, doing things that haven’t been done before."
She said the key to her success has been her ability to develop strategies and initiatives and having a great team. Her leadership style is to make it "very clear" what the expectations are and give team members the support they need to reach goals.
Boler-Davis said the most valuable lessons she's learned from her years of executive experience is to be extremely clear about expectations and to demonstrate good leadership by getting involved and being willing to take risks, inspiring team members to do the same.
Asked about missteps she's made along the way, Boler-Davis said there have been a number of them.
"Any time you are driving for results and moving fast, you will make mistakes," she said, adding that it's important to recognize missteps and learn from them. "Don't pretend you have all the answers. Having a level of humility goes a long way."
She also said she has learned to solicit input from her team.
"I don't always have the best solution or the best plan."
In 2010, Automotive News named Davis-Boler as one of the 100 leading women in the North American automotive industry, and in 2011 she was honored by the Michigan Chronicle as a Woman of Excellence.
When she's not working, Davis, a mother of two sons ages 7 and 10, primarily dedicates her time to family pursuits. Both boys are heavily involved in music and sports—hockey, soccer, swimming, tae kwon do and piano. She credits her mother and husband as the linchpins of her support system.
Boler-Davis also volunteers in her community as a member of the Links Inc., and as a board member of the Care House of Oakland County.
Boler-Davis encourages women to consider the automotive industry when career planning.
"Senior leadership recognizes the leadership of women," she said. "I really think it's a great time to be part of the industry. Things have come a long way."
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