Question and Answer Ralph Gilles
Ralph Gilles is an avid car racer obsessed with design. Formerly CEO of Dodge and Senior VP of Design, Gilles recently moved into a new position as President and CEO of SRT Brand and Motorsports while keeping his design role. He sat down on July 12 to talk with Christina DesMarais about his job change, the origin of the new SRT line, and Chryslers’ obsession with changing perceptions about its vehicles.
You’re in a new role. How did that come about?
Ralph Gilles: I’ve been with Chrysler a while. I would consider myself what they would call a “lifer,” which is unusual in our day and age. People tend to hop quite a bit. The reason I’ve stayed at Chrysler is there’s something about the underdog factor. Its always been this underdog and as an industrial designer, I love challenges.
So when I first joined the company we were just coming out of a dip back in the early 90s and we were doing a lot of work and it was really invigorating. And then [there was] the excitement of the Germans coming – we worked with Mercedes for seven years and that was really cool. Then there were the dark ages, the private equity days which were nasty. But the whole time, even with all that turmoil, it was exciting. There was always change, there were always new executives and design has always kind of ebbed and flowed [depending on] who held it up and that was my mission.
When I joined the company there was a gentleman by the name of Tom Gale who really helped design be respected within the company and when he left things really started to unravel. And I wanted to somehow be responsible for that coming back. So I tried to be an advocate for design by integrating it with engineering. So I guess that’s what I’d like my legacy to be when I leave the company God knows when. [I want] people to look back [and say] “Hey, he helped that relationship between the other departments.” I find you get a better product when you do that.
It’s all because I love cars. I was a kid who, since I was six years old, was sketching cars. I always wanted to be a car designer and I still do to this day. I still have the design but I [also] run SRT as a brand [as part of] my management job.
This is a new role for you, right?
Ralph Gilles: Yes. But I’ve been involved with this group for a long time because we’re so closely tied through the designing of the products and because I’m involved with the performance. I’m a racer myself. For the last 15 years, I’ve been racing cars so I kind of have it in my blood. So that makes it a natural fit for me.
With that role change, how has your job changed?
Ralph Gilles: Well, I ran the Dodge brand for two years so that was exciting and that was when we separated Ram from Dodge in late 09. We decided to make Dodge it’s own brand and [have] Ram go off and make trucks so it took a while to find a new personality for Dodge. I enjoyed doing that for about two years.
And now that that’s set up and has enough momentum [Chrysler] decided to change my role a little bit since we were launching [the SRT line] and since my true love is performance. Its just kind of organic and when you’re the squeaky wheel you tend to get greasy, right?
What about the history of SRT. Ralph Gilles, you talk about its origins with the Viper?
Ralph Gilles: Yeah. If you go back in time, to make the Viper happen they had to hand-pick the most enthusiastic engineers in the company” the [people] they knew would put their heart and soul into these things. And it wasn’t official back then, but they used to call it SVE, Specialty Vehicle Engineering. That was the initial name of the group and that kind of club mentality stuck around. Now it’s changed names a few times and it finally settled on SRT in 2002, right before the last generation Viper was launched.
We found that you end up hiring racers, people who really know the product and really know performance, and then you hand that information to the next person and the next person. It’s like a good recipe.
So you mentioned enthusiastic engineers. What do you mean by that?
Ralph Gilles: They eat, sleep, dream, and think about ways to make cars faster, more fun and they don’t compromise. And luckily with these cars, you can charge more money so you can put nicer equipment and more sophisticated stuff in the vehicle. So by having that ability, then they can realize their dreams and they get addicted to this, right, so they get even more passionate because they realize “Wow, I wanted the best shock absorbers you can get,” and sure enough the company said, “Let’s do it.” So that becomes rewarding after a while.
The Brembo brakes on these cars are the same brakes you’d find on a Ferrari or a Lamborghini and you don’t get that in a normal passenger car. So that’s exciting for an engineer to be able to use these kinds of tools. And for me, too.
Can you talk a little about your racing career and history?
Ralph Gilles: A lot of designers that I work with and with whom I went to school start off as being enthusiasts as well. Being a car designer you love cars and it manifests itself in different ways. I tried engineering but didn’t really like it but I’ve always had a love and respect for engineering.
What do you mean, you tried it?
Ralph Gilles: When I was in school, when I started college I was actually taking trigonometry and calculus and started going down the path of engineering. And when I was sitting in school I was bored senseless. I was actually sketching cars as I was taking notes. So I said, “Hmmm…This is not good. I’m probably more a right-brain person than a left-brain person.” So I decided to chase the arts. It’s really different. You don’t do any math in design. Its all basically proportion studies. It’s really truly an art.
So I went to an art school called the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. And I was surrounded by people like myself. I was like, “Wow, there’s 20 of us that love this.” It was a very small group of people, very exclusive. I really enjoyed it. When you’re surrounded by very talented designers it raises your game up.
Then when I came to Chrysler there were about 70 or 80 of these people and it was like, “Wow, they’re all like me.” And having that love for cars I had enough to spill over into my hobby for engineering. I love to tinker and I started getting tickets while I was driving on the streets so I said, “This is probably not good,” and an engineer friend of mine at the time said, “Why don’t you try racing? Get it out of your system.” So that’s what I did.
In the early 90s, I started racing and I never stopped since.
What do you mean, Ralph Gilles, you just “started” racing?
Ralph Gilles: Local clubs. I would do autocrossing which was a low cost because I didn’t have any money back then. So I would just take my normal everyday car and do these things called Gymkhanas where you do cones. And then that got boring after a while so I started doing SCCA racing which is wheel to wheel with small Neons, less expensive cars.
And then I bought a Viper and said, “Wow, this thing is fast.” And it was too fast for me. It was really intimidating. So I took lessons and before I knew it, I was doing it over and over again. It became a hobby.
So at what point does a person need to be certified to do these things?
Ralph Gilles: It’s up to them. In the company there’s no requirement for that, it’s just something that I chose to do and because of that…it’s actually worked to my benefit. I would say eight years ago I got to the point where I could actually be of value to the SRT team. So they trust me and bring me in to drive these cars and get my feedback and that’s one of the reasons we’re so tight and one of the reasons I think I have this job is because I understand the cars dynamically. Its almost like I got an MBA in driving, accidentally, without realizing it.
And speaking of MBA, right around 2001 I decided to go back to school and get a business degree as a promise to my dad. He passed away right around that time. He didn’t trust my art degree. My brother is a doctor and I’m this artist…
And where were you in Chrysler at that time?
Ralph Gilles: I was still a young designer. I actually got promoted just after that. I got promoted in 1999 as a manager, then a director in 2001, and my career started going nuts. So right at that point I [thought] I should probably go get an MBA because everything I was surrounded by was sounding like Greek to me, like all the business terms.
So that really helped Ralph Gilles?
Ralph Gilles: Yes. It made a big difference. I learned so much in that process, mostly by being surrounded by business types. As a designer, you can be very insular and be surrounded by just the same people and you don’t learn much about business terms so just being in the class alone, forget the curriculum, I was learning how these people talk, what they speak, what makes them tick. I was 32 when I graduated from the MBA program. It was an executive MBA so most people were in their 40s so they had a lot of corporate experience. I was just listening to their stories and sponging everything. It really taught me a lot about how to be a leader and not just a designer.
Well, you seem very different from some of the executives I’ve talked with. You’re young, for one thing, but you also seem very approachable. I’ve read that you’re a charismatic speaker and you don’t need a lot of help.
Has that always been the case?
Ralph Gilles: I guess so. Because the company has changed so many times I’ve been exposed to a lot of different leadership styles and it’s allowed me to edit some things I didn’t like. I saw bad leaders as well. I remember observing people and [thinking] I don’t like being treated the way he’s treating me. You remember those things as you grow.
And I think ascending so quickly in the company” not to be cocky, it was just unexpected” a lot of it was attrition, there were a lot of retirements at the time, so it was like, “You’re it, Ralph. You’re going to run this studio.” I’m like, “I am?” So it kind of forces you to learn a little quicker. I started knocking on doors and asking older executives to mentor me and it made me more acutely aware of myself. I think if I got promoted more naturally I would have had habit’s already and not noticed it but being forced to jump in the deep end of the pool I had to swim and learn quickly.
And then the rest of it is just, I think my folks have always raised me to be humble, and not get too high in [my] britches. I never wanted to wear a suit, I just hate it. I don’t like wearing ties. I don’t like wearing suits. I feel it intimidates people. I tend to want to blend in and just let my art do the talking and not my status…
You mentioned mentors. Is there anyone in particular Ralph Gilles?
Ralph Gilles: Yeah, Tom Gale. Tom Gale is a great mentor. I find some mentorship in Sergio, but a lot of it is my current management team. A lot of them are well-respected engineers who have stuck it out at Chrysler. They’ve been at Chrysler for 10, 15 years and they’ve been through the worst of times. And they’re all a little older than me but roughly the same age and I love that we trust each other so much. I’m good friends with the lead engineer, good friends with the lead marketing guy and so there’s this kind of camaraderie. It’s hard to explain. It’s kind of like a Navy Seal thing. That’s how it feels.
I think I read that Consumer Reports are starting to rate your cars a little bit better?
Ralph Gilles: It’s getting there. We’ve been working hard. There’s a gentleman named Doug Betts who [we] hired away from Nissan and Toyota, so he knows very well the very successful Asian companies and he’s brought a lot of good culture to our way.
It’s been a little frustrating because it just doesn’t happen fast enough. We find that there’s still perception hurting us. The actual quality is getting better almost exponentially. Especially these new products. We’ve had no problems that are of significance. [Just] the typical stuff that every automaker would have. So we’ve worked hard on that.
Design-wise I can only control what they call “perceived quality” and “tactical quality.” The actual bolting the car together, that’s being handled by someone else.
But what I love about Chrysler now is everyone is obsessed with it. We’ve been kicked in the gut so hard [for] so long that the shame of that has put a fire in our belly as you cant understand. We were driven differently, I think than other companies because we know that we’re better than what we’re reading about ourselves. But at the same time, we understand why people would see us in that light.
So we have to work harder than anybody to make up for the lost time. So I think that’s the motivation at Chrysler right now. It’s really heartfelt. We can do this. Don’t count us out. It’s a bit of a Rocky thing.
So it’s exciting…The hard work is paying off. Were just now starting to get accolades in the media, third-party feedback. Our cars are starting to get recommended. We had zero cars recommended four years ago. Now we have a handful and it’s starting to grow. One success feeds on another and another and you get happy people after a while.