Opel Chief Engineer Belts Out Drinking Songs to Revive GM Unit

Opel Chief Engineer Rita Forst
Opel's chief engineer Rita Forst said, “You can only work in a globalized environment if you know, accept and adapt to various cultures.” Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Rita Forst, chief engineer at General Motors Co.’s unprofitable Opel brand, must bridge a cultural gap between the U.S. and Germany to overhaul the European model line-up. The challenge plays to her strengths.

As an executive at the carmaker’s powertrain unit, she’s belted out German drinking songs over dinners with Swedish colleagues to loosen people up. While heading GM’s diesel engine development center in Turin, Italy, she set up exchanges between German and Italian employees who were reluctant to cooperate.

“You can only work in a globalized environment if you know, accept and adapt to various cultures,” the 55-year-old German said in an interview. “That can lead to friendships and makes things a whole lot easier.”

Forst, the only female chief engineer at a major carmaker, will need all the friends she can get since she became responsible for creating models for GM’s European unit to stop the exodus of customers to rivals such as Volkswagen AG. Turning around the Ruesselsheim, Germany-based division is also critical to GM’s planned share sale later this year.

“She’ll have to scramble to gear up and complete Opel’s range of cars, and do it in a way that they actually bring in money,” said Willi Diez, head of the Institute for Automobile Industry in Nuertingen, Germany. “It remains to be seen to what extent GM will let her tailor cars for European drivers.”

Forst says she aims to inject Opel with more “passion,” fuel efficiency and clever design to win back buyers who fled as GM debated whether to sell the unit. Opel’s share of western European sales plunged to 7.1 percent in 2009 from 10.2 percent in 2001, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association. Opel’s eight-month share was 7.2 percent.

GM ‘Empire’

The company’s new Astra Sports Tourer and Insignia sedan provide a glimpse of where Opel is headed, Forst said. They include features borrowed from higher-end vehicles like a smoother ride through better control of the rear axle, and seats that fold back at the push of a button.

Forst also points to a small car to be built from 2013 as evidence of her push to make autos with what she calls stronger lifestyle appeal. Her team of more than 5,000 engineers is working on concepts for a convertible and coupe, niches GM abandoned. German colleagues hope her plans win approval.

“Sometimes she’s just about to do something and then the empire, GM’s development center, strikes back and shuts that down,” said Klaus Franz, Opel’s works council chief and a colleague of 15 years. “But she doesn’t give up and still tries to go for the best possible solution. I wish she’d find more attentive ears in the male-dominated world of General Motors.”

Female Influence

The automotive world is tough for women, according to Craig Giffi, who follows the industry at Deloitte LLP in Detroit. Females held 11.5 percent of executive positions in 2006, the most recent year examined, compared with 16.9 percent in 2008 at all Fortune 500 companies, his study showed. At the same time, women influence more than 80 percent of car purchases, he said.

“They’ve been women as buyers themselves, and they understand that,” Giffi said of the importance of having more female executives. “That’s an experience that’s invaluable and, frankly, hard to duplicate.”

Successes for Forst, a 33-year Opel veteran, include helping the company introduce the first three-way catalytic converter in the early 1980s, which reduced nitrogen oxide emissions. The following decade, she led the development of the L850 light-alloy engine, later sold worldwide to reduce weight.

Seeking ‘Passion’

Forst says like any executive she must deliver on a daily basis and juggle that with family life. That’s meant her husband and two sons have accepted she might sit at the dinner table answering messages at the end of a long work day.

“When women do something, they’re in it with all their heart, emotions play an important role,” she said in an interview Sept. 30 at the Paris Motor Show. “We know why we’re doing it and where we want to go. That attitude is a big part of my management style. I want to see passion.”

To break down hierarchical barriers at the office she holds monthly meetings with staff from all levels and encourages them to share what’s on their mind. She’s also set up an intranet site for employees to contact her directly. She says she’s received hundreds of messages, and answered them mostly in her spare time.

“She’s outstanding, a very accomplished senior engineering executive with a strong understanding of the product,” said Dan Hancock, who was Forst’s boss from 2000 until 2005 and currently is the carmaker’s vice president for global product alliances. “With her business, people and communication skills, she is one of our very gifted leaders at General Motors.”

European Turnaround

GM, based in Detroit, has pledged 3.6 billion euros ($5 billion) to rebuild Opel after pulling out of a deal last year to sell the unit and failing to obtain European government funds. GM needs to stop the drain in the region as it prepares to sell shares after emerging from bankruptcy last year. The first-half loss before interest and taxes in Europe hit $637 million and the costs for the turnaround will prevent a profit next year, said Nick Reilly, who heads GM’s European operations.

When Forst was tasked to set up a diesel development center in Turin, she moved there from 2005 to 2008. She overcame German engineers’ reservations about working with the Italians by focusing on the advantages of cooperation, said Kjell ac Bergstrom, powertrain chief at Saab Automobile, which GM sold this year.

“She clearly has the ability to thrive in these very masculine surroundings,” said Bergstrom, who’s participated in sing-a-longs over dinner at Forst’s house. “She stands up when it blows hard.”

Green Roots

Forst says her drive to make Opel’s cars more fuel efficient stems from the OPEC countries’ oil embargo of 1973, which left highways across Europe deserted and made her a supporter of the then-nascent green movement. She studied energy and heat engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in Darmstadt, Germany. She also spent a year in Michigan in the 1980s at GM’s academy for promising executives.

Forst is now working on the Ampera electric car, the European version of the Chevy Volt, which will also have a gasoline engine to extend the vehicle’s range by another 300 miles when the battery starts to run low after 40 miles. She sees the car as a good example of embracing an alternative power source customers are ready to buy.

“It’s not about driving innovation at all costs but about stepping back and asking what’s best for the company,” she said. “You can’t lose yourself in the quest for technology.”

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