The Unobvious Ones is a monthly look at movers and shakers who fly below the radar in the Canadian auto industry.
FROM TRAINEE TO MENTOR IN HONDA’S R&D DEPARTMENT
Some people see their careers as roller-coaster rides, but that’s what started Carolyn LeBlanc on hers. The Winnipeg native is an upper-body design engineer at Honda R&D Americas in Ohio.
“When I was a little kid, I used to play the computer game RollerCoaster Tycoon,” she said.“I was 8 or 9, and I asked my dad, how do I design roller coasters? He said I had to be an engineer, so I decided I would be that.”
She studied engineering at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and joined Formula SAE, an automotive competition for which students design, build, and test open-wheel racing vehicles.
“I didn’t know a ton about automotive, but it was a great team environment. I started as a rookie in 2010 and made my way up to team leader.”
At the competition, she presented the frame and body to the judges, one of whom was from Honda.
“I guess I did well, because he came back to our paddock and gave me his card, and through that I got hired at Honda R&D.”
Her husband, who works in Honda’s chassis department, moved to Ohio with her.
LeBlanc works with the vehicle’s upper structure and cabin, focusing mostly on structural rigidity and crash safety.
“When you start [at Honda], you can hit the ground running. The new Civic was my first project. You get a senior design mentor, but you’re given responsibility for that part right away. I moved to RDX very close to the early design stage and I followed my parts all the way through to the first RDX coming off the line.
“I have had a lot of really good mentors at Honda, and now I’m a mentor to two new designers in my department. We’re able to take initiatives so the customer gets the benefit.”
GETTING STUDENTS ON TRACK FOR AUTO OPPORTUNITIES
It’s tough to get students into the trades, and Alan McClelland is doing all he can as dean of the School of Transportation at Toronto’s Centennial College.
“There’s still a myth that going to university will lead to better career options than pursuing a trade,” he said. “We’re hoping that working with younger people will help them plan for this.”
McClelland started out as a heavy equipment technician, but in the late 1980s, he and his wife “wanted an adventure” and taught at a vocational school in Papua New Guinea.
“I really liked it, and when we came back at the end of our term, I ended up working for auto manufacturers teaching automotive technology.
“I worked for Ford and then Nissan, where I started as a regional training instructor. When I left, I was managing technician training for the country.”
He worked in British Columbia’s college system in corporate training and continuing education, and then returned to Ontario and joined Centennial College.
“Initially I was a department chair and looked after corporate automotive, trucks, and heavy equipment. I joined in 2007, and in 2011 I became dean for the school. I oversee half a dozen chairs and support them in managing their programs.”
For the past two years he has been a crew chief at the Targa Newfoundland road race, taking a group of students for hands on experience.
“That gives me an opportunity to connect with the students and get back onto the tools, which is fun.”
He’s currently focusing on outreach into schools.
“We have students in grades 7, 8 and 9 coming and looking at our trades. There are probably more employers looking to hire than there are graduates looking for work right now. For people with good problem-solving skills and math and science, the world’s their oyster.”
TELLING THE PRODUCT’S STORY TO CUSTOMERS ONLINE
Automakers live in online spaces, and that’s Alannah David-Clark’s domain. She’s the manager of digital communications for Nissan and Infiniti Canada, where she maintains online platforms and the strategies behind them.
“I oversee the [websites] that have our product or incentive information for consumers,” she said. “I also maintain social media for Infiniti Canada.”
A typical day involves working with internal teams and agency partners to develop new campaigns or product updates.
“Future planning is a big part of my job. I align with our global partners for product launches and new technologies that we’re rolling into different markets. I make sure our product is well-represented within the digital space in Canada.”
David-Clark studied political science and sociology at th University of Toronto, but was still unsure of her career path until she landed in the marketing department at luxury retailer Holt Renfrew in 2004.
“I was exposed to a lot of wonderful things in marketing, from data and analytics to print productions. I got to work on a large data implantation system, which gave me experience with the IT department and project manage-ment, and that took me to my next step.”
That next step led to Mercedes-Benz, because, “I think I needed a change of pace and I thought the transition from luxury retail to luxury automotive was something I wanted to try.”
She also worked on digital platforms for Audi and Hyundai before joining Nissan in 2016.
“We’re fortunate in that you can add videos, and put the tools online. Five years ago, customers had to do personal research, but now they have it at their fingertips. The first impression is the most important. People don’t think of digital marketers as storytellers, but they really are. We have to do a good job of getting that across.”