News Column

Mastering the Crossover

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An increase in responsibility had Grace Lieblein tossing and turning through many sleepless nights in 2006 as the pressure mounted for both her and her employer, General Motors.

With the top-selling U.S. auto maker losing ground to Toyota in market share, GM mounted a restructuring plan that included cutting jobs and placing a heavy emphasis in high-growth areas, such as "crossover" vehicles. And the company plugged Ms. Lieblein, a chief vehicle engineer, into a key role in its campaign to produce the smaller sport utility vehicles.

She led a team of engineers in creating the 2008 Buick Enclave, marketed as the brand's first luxury crossover vehicle. It was unveiled on the eve of November's Los Angeles Auto Show and it hits showroom floors this summer.

"This has been the pinnacle of my entire career," says Ms. Lieblein, the highest-ranking Hispanic woman at GM. "We've spent the last year launching [the Enclave], showing it to our dealers and promoting the vehicle at media events. It's the most responsibility I've had as well as the most challenging thing and the most rewarding thing I've done. I've been involved in some great projects at GM, but this tops the list."

Along with the responsibility came a lot of late nights as the new vehicle approached its launch date.

"This is no exaggeration: There were a lot of sleepless nights," Ms. Lieblein says. "From an engineering standpoint, I was the final person who has ultimate accountability for the vehicle. Hundreds of engineers have their fingerprints on it. They had stakes in pieces of it, but the whole thing was my responsibility.

"On one hand, it's great that GM has the confidence in me to put me in charge of this all new product, and in an area that's so critical for GM to succeed in. On the other hand, you lose a lot of sleep."

FINISHED PRODUCT

The Enclave features a 3.6-liter, six-cylinder engine that nets 18 miles per gallon on city streets and 26 on the highway, a six-speed transmission and a cab that seats eight.

Ralph Gray, an auto editor for Hispanic Business, says the Enclave is a "significant vehicle for General Motors."

"It looks to me as if the Enclave will fit nicely into the luxury end of the crossover segment," he says. "More importantly, it signals Buick returning to its brand heritage the styling, the equipment, and the features. ... Buick is using new design cues like a waterfall black chrome grille with the Buick tri-shield emblem and three portholes. All hark back to Buick's historic look."

Ms. Lieblein, 46, has her own history with GM. Her father, Rolando Larrinua, was an hourly employee at GM's Los Angeles plant, and she proudly says she grew up with GM blood in her veins. She started her career in the auto industry as an 18-year-old co-op student in the assembly division at GM. She earned an engineering degree from the General Motors Institute, now Kettering University, climbed the corporate ladder, and now she's responsible for overseeing all the aspects of engineering for GM's current and future front-wheel drive trucks, including crossover vehicles.

FAMILY MATTERS

Since following her father into the auto industry, Ms. Lieblein has remained family oriented. Despite having a challenging job, she says she finds a way to put her husband, Tom, and daughter, Ally, first.

"I've always been upfront with the leaders I work with," she says. "The first thing I tell them is that I'll do the best job I can on any assignment they give me, but they need to know that my family life is important as well. I let them know that balance is really important to me, and they need to know what my priorities are."

But a "balance" means different things to different people, she notes.

"It's an individual thing; my sister is a teacher who balances her family with her career by getting the summers off," Ms. Lieblein says. "And the balance changes as you progress in your career and as you progress through your family life. When I was pregnant with my daughter, she was my focus. At that point, I couldn't take a new assignment that required a lot of travel or having to learn anything new because I physically didn't have the energy.

"Balance isn't a level line that you draw and stick to. It ebbs and flows depending upon how your professional life and family life changes."

As a female executive in engineering, Ms. Lieblein has become an instant role model for young women in the company who want to have a family life along with a career.

"I tell people that I had to learn quickly that I couldn't be everything to everybody," she says. "I couldn't be the class mom, the Girl Scout leader, and have a challenging career all at the same time. You have to pick and choose. So, one year I was the class mom. A couple years later, I was the Girl Scout leader.

"Now my daughter is 15 and doesn't need me around as much, and, at that age, kids don't want you around as much either," she jokes. "So, I was able to take on this latest career challenge with the Enclave."

GRACE UNDER FIRE

And as the U.S. auto market has shifted away from the bulky SUVs and toward smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles, many challenges lie ahead for Ms. Lieblein and GM. But she says there hasn't been a time in her career that the auto industry wasn't ultra-competitive.

"Is it more competitive today than it was four or five years ago? Not really," Ms. Lieblein says. "Obviously, the market share aspect adds pressure, but in engineering we know that we need to be putting great products out into the marketplace. I know that's what I can do to contribute to the company's turnaround.

"The financial and market share standpoints are always in the back of your mind, and that adds pressure, but there's healthy pressure and unhealthy pressure. Our team knows it has to focus on making good products. Frankly, we're fortunate that we've received outstanding feedback from the media about the Enclave. There are a lot of tough critics out there and there are all kinds of forums on the auto industry. And the feedback has been consistently outstanding. It's a credit to the team and all of our blood, sweat and tears."

SEEKING GOALS

Ms. Lieblein mentors employees within her company and aspiring students at New Mexico State University through the GM Key Institution program. She tells them to figure out what their goals are, but she admits, "I'm so bad at taking my own advice."

She said she doesn't have her eye on a vice-president's post, or any other rung on the GM corporate ladder. She only wants to feel as though her strengths and skills are being utilized while she has fun at her job and makes time for her family.

"It's not unique to Latinas, but I have strong family ties," she says. "I have my husband, my daughter, and my extended family, and I enjoy spending time with them. Without that, it's not worth it."

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