The Unobvious Ones is a monthly look at movers and shakers who fly below the radar in the Canadian auto industry.
WINDSOR NATIVE HAS THE AUTO INDUSTRY IN HER BLOOD
As governments gradually lift restrictions amid COVID-19, people are returning to their workplaces. Making sure they do so safely at General Motors Canada is part of Natalie Gadsden’s job as a sustainable workplaces manager.
“We prepare them in advance, so they know what they need to do before they arrive. It might not be the workspace they’re used to.
“Most of my day right now is spent focused on helping people return safely and adjust to new norms.”
Gadsden, 37, earned degrees in chemistry and then engineering, with a focus on environmental. A native of Windsor, Ont., she comes from a “long line” of auto workers.
“I had a summer job working on the [GM assembly] line, and when I graduated from university, I landed a contract position at the Oshawa [Ont.] assembly plant as an environmental engineer. In 2010, I was hired directly as a salaried employee.”
Gadsden’s teams provide direction for GM’s headquarters and three of its technical centres in Ontario along with three of its engine and parts facilities in New York, where she has a leadership role with environmental engineers.
“The teams lead the day-to-day compliance activities. We have procedures issued by the [government] and our sustainability initiatives. We operate and maintain the buildings to drive toward our zero emissions.”
In a typical year she focuses on site improvements, “but right now we’re responsible for entry protocols, setting up physical distancing cues, providing masks and temperature scanning, and anticipating needs. There are fewer people on site, but we still have engineers doing critical lab work that can’t be done remotely.
“It has been inspiring the way people have come together and are willing to take on new things. I love the job because of the people, and the sustainability. The industry is changing, and I believe we are making a difference.”
OUTDOOR ADVENTURER CLICKS WITH OUTDOORSY CUSTOMERS
How people shop for vehicles in the digital age has been among the industry’s biggest transformations. Even before dealers had to cope with pandemic restrictions, Mike McWhinney was incorporating and adjusting to new methods as the assistant sales manager of Hilltop Subaru in Vernon, B.C.
“On a daily basis, I answer phones and answer emails. I do the RAPID chat, where if a customer logs onto Subaru’s webpage and requests information, it connects them to their closest dealer. Then there’s the usual daily stuff, and receiving inventory and putting it into the computer. There’s lots going on all the time.”
McWhinney, 49, managed a mountain bike store for 12 years and then switched over to selling boats.
“That was also my first taste of automotive, because they’ve got big engines and you’ve got to tow them with trucks. It was interesting because the emphasis was on fun and I learned to associate selling with the fun part of it.”
He also coached cross-country ski racing.
He was offered a position at Hilltop in 2009 by a friend who is part of the Kosmino family that owns it.
“The hardest part of switching from bikes and boats to cars is that there’s a lot more to know. There’s a ton of product knowledge required and you have to figure out the right questions to ask [buyers] to figure out what will be the right product. The nice part is that people view a Subaru as a lifestyle component, and whether it’s skiing or mountain bikes, there’s something to talk about.
“My biggest pet peeve is the phrase, ‘It’s not my job.’ I’ll torque wheels or enter inventory or pair someone’s phone for the 25th time. I’ll always do what’s required, and it has to be that way.”
GOOD INFORMATION IS VITAL TO PROVIDING GOOD ADVICE
Fresh out of business school in 1982, Peter Hatges heard that accounting firm KPMG in Toronto was paying students to answer questions from trainees learning to conduct interviews. Hatges made an impression and was hired. He is now a partner and the national sector leader for automotive.
“For automotive, any news ... is funneled through me, or we create it from a Canadian perspective. We advise clients on buying, selling or merging with other companies, help them refinance their companies, or provide advice on valuation for dealers, suppliers or anyone associated with the auto industry.”
Hatges started at KPMG performing junior tasks on audits, “in the worst recession ever,” he said. He became a chartered accountant and joined a new group working on restructuring and insolvency solutions for clients.
“I had never done it before, and it was fascinating.
“Magna had some financial challenges in the late 1980s and right away I put my hand up to be on that assignment. I always had a love of cars and this was right up my alley because I knew all the platforms, the brands, all the different components they were making.”
The project taught him a lot and while he worked in other areas and “over time I did more transactions in the automotive space. I was the president of corporate finance within KPMG and they said they needed someone who can lead an automotive industry group, and they picked me.”
Hatges has about 200 people to draw on in KMPG’s automotive sector when he needs to gather information for a client or for publications.
“When you’re giving advice, knowledge about that industry is crucial. I have to have my finger on the pulse for trends and information.”