After 24 years in the auto industry and oversight of a $150 million-plus budget at GM, Tony Cervone decided he needed a change.
That change came this February when he became CCO and SVP of corporate communications at airline holding company UAL Corp., parent of United Airlines.
“Having more industry experience under my belt [was] always something that had nagged at me,” explains Cervone. “It never had anything to do with running away from what was going on at GM.”
At UAL, his focus has been on “work[ing] with staff to find out how good they are and how to let them be as good as they can be.”
“When a company comes out of bankruptcy and turmoil, [communications pros] get conservative and tend not to be thinking in terms of opportunity,” he notes. “My goal is to loosen them up a bit.”
Though Cervone is still getting up to speed on the airline industry, he has much experience to draw on.
During his auto-industry tenure, Cervone assisted with the land-mark 2007 UAW agreement, oversaw daily communications concerning the recent credit crunch, and helped shape Chrysler's cutting-edge comms strategies in the mid 1990s.
When asked what he deemed to be his career highlight, Cervone immediately mentions the opportunity to work with former GM and DaimlerChrysler colleagues.
Starting his post-college career at Daimler, Cervone quickly became part of a “rat pack” of auto communications pros, including his “yoda,” Steve Harris, and Jason Vines, who became a close-knit group.
Cervone recalls the early to mid-'90s as “special because we were hitting on all cylinders and having an absolute riot... We were doing things like driving Jeeps through windows to show [that] the thing could climb any set of stairs.”
“I miss not having Tony 25 feet away from me,” says Harris, GM's VP of global communications. “He's a manager's dream, always asking, ‘Do we need this much? Can we do this for less?'
“He's not afraid to surround himself with people who are creative,” he adds. “He's very much seen as a mentor to younger people.”
From an operational standpoint, Cervone is proud of the degree of internal and external transparency he helped to institute at GM.
“The element of spin is outdated,” he asserts. “It's about articulating who you are and what strengths you have: allowing people to come to a conclusion as to whether they agree or disagree.”
Categorizing Cervone's approach to PR, Vines, former Daimler colleague and current senior advancement director at Forgotten Harvest, notes his “honesty” and “use of communications as a strategic tool.”
Both Vines and Gary Grates, president and global MD for Edelman Change and Employee Engagement, also recognize Cervone as the ultimate collaborator and teammate.
Grates, who has known Cervone from his days at GM Europe, says, “He's somebody you can have a lot of fun with and still work hard.”
This ethos is crucial to Cervone. “You can still have fun [as a communications pro] in serious situations,” he notes. “Where people run into problems is when they make light of the situation.”
UAL Corp., CCO and SVP of corporate comms
GM, various roles. From executive director, exec. and corp. comms to VP of global strategy and operations