I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time recently with Susan
Docherty, General Motors Western Region General Manager. She is an
amazing woman who has contributed much to the automotive industry
during her tenure at General Motors and by the time our hour was up, I
was extremely impressed by the passion and enthusiasm she so clearly
demonstrates for what she does.
Susan has spent more than 22 years with General Motors, and currently leads the sales, service, marketing, and distribution efforts for 16 Western states, including Hawaii and Alaska. And even though she currently possesses two undergraduate degrees from the University of Windsor as well as a Sloan Fellow with Distinction with a Master of Science from Stanford University, her origins at General Motors are humble: Believe it or not, she began as a business student working an internship on the midnight shift at the Windsor, Ontario (Canada) transmission plant.
When I asked her how she first became interested in a career in automotive, she said it was simply curiosity. “I had no vision at that point that I was going to enter the auto industry (as a career) but thought that with Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler all producing vehicles in that city, that it would be important for me to understand the industry.”
By the time she had finished her second degree, a new
opportunity presented itself, and even though she was considering
entering an international law program, she thought she could work one
more summer to gain useful experience. Then she became hooked! She said
she remembers telling her parents “I am so excited about what I see
General Motors doing, that I’m not sure that law school is the right
thing… I want to give this whole automotive thing a try.”
“And from that moment forward,” she says, “I never looked back.”
Her list of accomplishments at General Motors is long, and includes assignments in four different countries (Canada, Switzerland, Germany, and the United States) working with all eight GM brands (Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC, Hummer, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Saturn).
Among her proudest achievements was launching the Saturn brand in Canada in 1991, where (because of the country’s French/English bilingual polarity), they had to create a whole new way to explain that ‘different’ really did mean ‘better.’ “To this day,” Susan confesses, “I still keep some of the Saturn ads we had worked on as a reminder of how important it is not to assume that what’s going work in the United States is going to work everywhere.”
She also used that understanding in her four-year tenure as Director of Marketing for Chevrolet and Cadillac in Europe. There, she led a turnaround campaign for both Cadillac and Chevrolet, and also implemented brand management programs across Europe. “One of the things we had to do to make Chevrolet and Cadillac more relevant in Europe was to go back to the history of who this person ‘Cadillac’ was, and who this person ‘Chevrolet’ was, because both of those individuals were Europeans who came to America. The moment the European consumer began to understand that those two brands had owners who had heritage that was European-based, it began to click.”
Another highpoint: She launched the Cadillac Escalade and had a baby girl in the same year, describing it as “the most exciting, stressful time of my life. It was great!” Susan continued, saying, “It was really great to see that the luxury consumer also wanted luxury in a truck offering… We thought we’d sell 20,000 units over a 24-month period; we wound up doing 50,000!”
In 2004, Susan was appointed the General Manager of Hummer, where she was responsible for marketing, sales, distribution, dealer development, and management of the Hummer brand worldwide. During this time, she introduced the H3 midsize sport/utility vehicle, bringing Hummer sales from about 20,000 annually to about 60,000 a year. Sales demographics also changed significantly with that vehicle, from only 10% women buyers before the arrival of the H3, to about 30% women buyers afterwards. “We definitely saw a movement in the number of women attracted to the H3,” Susan explained, “because it’s smaller, more fuel efficient, and nimble.”
When asked to speak from her heart about why a woman would want to choose a career in automotive, Susan’s answer struck a chord in my own heart: “What attracted me when I first took that job in Oshawa was how dynamic this business was, how many opportunities there were… the avenues in automotive were limitless.” Susan continued, saying, “by the mere fact that product continuously changes, there is a sexiness about this industry and the fact that there are so many products and so many choices. It can be mind-numbing, but it’s never dull!”
“What’s nice about this career is that you get to interact with people from all different walks of life who all have different interests,” Susan explained. “But at the end of the day, we all want to make design, build, manufacture, and sell great cars and trucks. And that, to me, is pretty exciting.”
“For me personally, this 22-year journey is one that I could never have written what it would be about. Back in my early 20s, I had no idea (what it would be like), but if the next 10 or 20 years are as exciting as the first 22,” Susan exclaimed, “then I am the luckiest person in the world!”