The Unobvious Ones is a monthly look at movers and shakers who fly below the radar in the Canadian auto industry.
GETTING IT RIGHT WHEN TESTS NEED TO BE RIGHT
Vehicle testing is vital to the auto industry, and Warren Karlson knows everything has to be right. He’s involved in several aspects of it as senior engineering manager for the Automotive Centre of Excellence (ACE) test facility in Oshawa, Ont.
“I reach out to customers, make sure we’re prepared for their testing, and that we can run the equipment here.”
Karlson specializes in structural durability — better known as “shake” tests — and also works with the wind tunnel.
With a master’s degree in engineering, Karlson initially worked for GM in Oshawa, first as an intern and then full time in the engineering and testing labs. The automaker was a founding partner at ACE, located at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and Karlson considered getting into teaching there until he saw an ad for his current position.
“I thought it would be a great fit and I liked the handson aspect of it. I came here in 2010, before the building opened, and was one of the original members.”
On a typical test day, Karlson works directly with customers to ensure they’re getting the data they need. While automakers usually test to specific standards, “the smaller companies don’t necessarily know what they need, so we work with them to create test procedures that allow them to prove out their products.”
The team includes students who help with tasks and learn at the test centre. “I’ve had a number of students since the start, and I still keep in touch with a lot of them. It’s very fulfilling to see students get experience at ACE and then go on to a good career.”
DOING WHAT IT TAKES TO KEEP EMPLOYEES HAPPY
Human resources is about attracting employees, and keeping them. That’s how Lydia Bowser sees it, as senior HR manager for Hyundai Canada.
“We’re a smaller organization so our HR team is also quite small, but we do all major HR activities and make sure our employee engagement is high to make it all run smoothly.”
With a BA in psychology from Toronto’s York University, she took a summer intern job with an automotive supplier in 2003.
“Being paired with an HR manager made me realize I wanted this as a career, and I did a post-graduate diploma and got my CHRP (certified human resources professional) designation.”
Bowser moved to Kia Canada and then to Mazda. She also worked for software companies, “but I hadn’t been able to find the type of passion in employees that I saw in automotive.” When she got a call from Hyundai, she was back in the industry.
“We do the development and personnel issues, but we also try to make the workplace a lot more fun and engaging. We spend so much time with the people we work with, sometimes more than our families. Our social committee now has over 80 per cent of people participating in activities.
“It doesn’t cost a lot of money. People would be surprised how little we spend on a holiday party. We’ll have things that don’t cost anything, like fun competitions deciphering sentences written in emojis, done over a lunch hour. People were talking about it for the rest of the week. And we work on building projects to support our workforce, from new graduates to people planning their retirement. We put in programs that support everybody’s needs while they’re working here.”
KNOWING WHAT TO ASK AND WHAT TO TELL
Complex automotive technologies need the right person to get the message out to the right people. That’s Jordana Strosberg’s specialty as the global advanced technology communications manager for General Motors.
“I lead a team of four communications professionals,” Strosberg said. “We’re small but mighty. We focus on investors, employees, potential employees and policymakers, and we talk to media to try to reach them.”
Strosberg grew up in St. Catharines, Ont., where her father owned a company that washed gloves for the nearby GM plant. She graduated from Toronto’s Seneca College in 2002 with a corporate communications diploma, and worked with entertainment and technology companies before moving to Windsor, Ont.
“I got two job offers in one day, one with PR in Microsoft, the other with GM’s transmission plant as a plant-communications manager.
“I had done a great job of avoiding the auto industry, but I was looking for things I hadn’t done before, and I jumped at it. A few years later I transferred into a role at GM’s [Detroit] headquarters in 2008 and have been here ever since.”
Her roles have included executive communications for CEO Mary Barra. “It was probably one of the most inspiring aspects of my career. I worked on her visibility plan and created her social-media strategy from the ground up. We went from zero followers to over a million. I did work on speaking engagements where there are months of speechwriting, photography and video behind those five minutes.”
Strosberg uses her ability as a storyteller to get information across.
“When I understand it, it’s easier to explain it to someone else. I don’t focus on sounding silly when I ask a question, because there’s always someone else in the room wondering the same thing. I’m incredibly authentic, and it’s important to build trust.”