Tom Kowaleski always felt drawn to put his love of cars to work as an employee for General Motors. Today, he gets to live his dream as global communications VP for the car company. John N. Frank reports.
The fates began telling Tom Kowaleski early in his life that he'd work at General Motors some day. In fact, during his high-school days in Ohio, he somehow convinced his parents to vacation in Detroit so he could visit car plants.
A self-described car nut since his early childhood - he began reading car titles like Road & Track as a 9-year-old - Kowaleski was thrilled to go to a GM engineering institute to discuss a possible career as an automotive engineer. But when he heard about the math grades he'd need, he realized "being a GM engineer wasn't going to happen." Math just wasn't his strong suit. Instead, he started thinking about communications as a career. He graduated from Ohio University in 1973 with a degree in radio and TV communications.
Fast forward about six years to when Kowaleski began doing PR for Renault.
When he first joined the French company's US operations, its headquarters were in New Jersey. But it soon moved to Manhattan - where Kowaleski's 25th floor office on 59th Street and Park Avenue faced the GM building.
Today, Kowaleski is GM's global communications VP, a post he was promoted to on January 1 of this year, when auto PR legend - and Kowaleski mentor - Steve Harris retired.
Observers say Kowaleski has a tough task. When Harris joined GM five years ago, its communications were in disarray and its product reputation was poor. Harris changed that. New models, along with major moves like the rejuvenation of Cadillac, are garnering favorable reviews. In short, GM is now on a roll.
Kowaleski must maintain that momentum as competitors flood the market with their own new products.
"For the first time in decades, GM is showing that it has good product," says veteran Detroit auto writer Paul Eisenstein. "Part of Tom's challenge is maintaining momentum for a company that has had a lot of good momentum lately."
Kowaleski isn't fazed by the task. "Our product story has gotten increasingly stronger," he says.
Those who know him agree he's up for it. "It's a challenge he can handle," says Jason Vines, a friend, former coworker, and now competitor in his role as communications VP for the Chrysler Group of Daimler. "He's one of the better strategic thinkers in (all of) PR."
Kowaleski snared his first auto-industry PR job with Renault. He spent half a year working on a contract basis from Ohio on Renault racing PR before moving to the company's then-new US office in 1979 for a full-time position.
As Renault began taking a larger stake in the old American Motors, Kowaleski met Steve Harris, then at AMC. While there was animosity between many executives at the French and American companies, Kowaleski and Harris worked well together.
So well, in fact, that when Harris ended up at Chrysler and had to build a PR team there, he invited Kowaleski to join him in 1988. The team Harris put together became known in Detroit for the pizzazz and sizzle it put into new product introductions.
"We changed the way products were unveiled," Vines recalls, "and Tom led that charge."
While Harris served as a Jedi-like figure, he used Kowaleski and Vines as his high-energy pit bulls, recalls one reporter who asked not to be quoted.
Vines calls himself and Kowaleski the "Tasmanian devils" of Chrysler PR at the time. Kowaleski developed a reputation for being very blunt and direct with journalists, sometimes alienating them in the process.
However, says Harris, "Tom has changed his style appreciably over the last five years."
Kowaleski says he simply believes in being direct with reporters, and he expects them to know what they're talking about when asking questions.
"We should always know the facts of our company," says Kowaleski. "I only ask that others separate fact from conventional wisdom when talking to me."
Knowing GM's business and how PR fits into it will keep Kowaleski busy.
"Our job is to provide excellence in strategic counsel in all areas of communications, not just on the tactical side, but on the strategic side," he says.
A major goal for him is to ensure GM simplifies its messages in the market.
GM must also coordinate local messaging around the world with an overarching corporate image and voice.
The communications strategy board at GM meets twice a month to focus on strategic issues and a third time each month to talk about tactics needed to carry out strategic goals. The phone meetings include the heads of all of GM's major communications areas in the US, Canada, and Mexico, as well as its regional communications heads from Europe and Asia.
The company is now looking to go beyond traditional ads to reach consumers, Kowaleski says.
An Oscar-week party held in LA the past three years is a prime example, he says. Featuring 10 celebrities, 10 fashion designers, and 10 GM cars, the party has gone from a small event to one that garnered a full page of coverage in People this year, showing off GM cars with people whose opinions influence others.
Kowaleski has thrust himself into his job with gusto. He's usually up at 5:30am each day and reads four or five papers before he heads to work at 7am. He'll put in a 12-hour day before dinner and more work at home in the evening.
"I try to lead by example," he says. "It's totally unfair for me to ever ask anyone to work harder than I do."
The chances of that happening are slim as Kowaleski seems finally to have landed the job the fates were pointing him toward for years.
March 1999-present: General Motors. Began as executive director of product and brand communications; rose to North America VP of comms (June 2002); promoted to VP of comms (January 2004)
November 1998-March 1999: Executive director of corporate comms strategy, DaimlerChrysler
January 1996-November 1998: VP, marketing and comms, Chrysler Europe
1988-1996: Chrysler. Began as executive director of product comms; rose to director of product comms in 1995
1986-1988: VP, Campbell & Co.
1984-1986: Marketing manager, American Motors
1979-1984: PR manager, corporate group, Renault USA.