Now’s His Time

Cheered, but not surprised: the Camaro had been the subject of an intensive effort to redefine the image of GM cars in the public imagination. “We put a lot of effort into that one,” he says of the Camaro, which presold more than 14,000 vehicles before its late-summer launch. “It’s very sporty and a bit aggressive,” says Welburn. The revival of the classic 60s muscle car, he adds, is “built on the heritage of Camaro, but in a very contemporary way.”

Design is a rising priority at GM as the company seeks to recapture its once-dominant share of the American car market. As global chief of design, Welburn is the man ultimately responsible for the way GM cars look across all brands.

In a sense, Welburn, who was named to the post in 2005 after a 38-year career with GM, has a triple role. As design chief, Welburn is both coach and cheering section for the army of GM designers scattered across studios in America, Europe, Brazil, and Asia. He is a corporate salesman in forums like the Detroit Auto Show, where Welburn is a mainstay. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Welburn is the designated champion for design in the boardroom, where he must contend with the forces of “value engineering” and cost control for the soul of GM.

In short, this is the beginning of the Ed Welburn era at GM. If he is to make his mark on the corporate behemoth, now’s his time. And with GM designs being scrutinized by press and even government as never before, Welburn’s corporate perch is also a hot seat. If he’s feeling the heat from his new visibility, however, he’s not showing it. Welburn wears his corporate cool like a badge of honor. He’s already weathered big shifts in the corporate power structure, plus a year of wrenching setbacks and GM’s brief stint in Chapter 11 reorganization. “He’s a survivor,” says auto-design author C. Edson Armi.

Welburn has also served as the official voice of GM. He can get pepperish if he perceives someone taking a cheap shot at the citadel. In July, Welburn got into a brief but highly visible beef on the blogosphere. Huffington Post columnist Gerald Sindell had written an open letter to the company’s new CEO, Fritz Henderson, expressing doubt in GM’s design team. The GM staff, he wrote, were “mostly corporate-type guys, in ties and suits, and the one thing that doesn’t leap out is, ‘Wow—great design sense.’“

After duly bristling, Welburn responded that convincing the public that GM has fully turned around “will be difficult, but not impossible, and our designers have the best chance of rebuilding that confidence.” But can this lifetime company man make the Chevy Malibu roll out of showrooms like an invading force?

Welburn says he has the requisite design talent in GM’s 11 design studios in eight countries. The most important thing he can do, he asserts, is to “remove all the obstacles” facing his design team. It also helps to stay out of its way, he adds. “If the boss does a sketch and gives it into the creative team, they stop creating,” Welburn says. “Everybody just turns around and develops the design from the boss’s sketch. It just totally shuts down the studio.”

How can a downsized GM regain its footing in the crowded marketplace? “From my point of view, everybody has great quality right now. No one has a real advantage” in that area, he says.  The big differentiator, he adds, will be “a distinct identity for the brand.”

One bid for heightened brand identity is the current Cadillac CTS, according to Welburn. “The forms are far more sophisticated than those of earlier models,” he says. Other personal favorites are the Buick La Crosse (“very sweeping lines, like an artist’s brush stroke going from thick to thin”) and the Malibu (“terrific proportions, appears far more expensive than it actually is”). The biggest anticipation is GM’s first electric car, the Volt, scheduled for release in 2011. “Volt has the potential to be dominant” in the hybrid and electric vehicle category, he remarks.

Before GM can dominate, however, it must first survive and prosper, and the market reception to designs rolling out of Welburn’s studios will likely have much to do with the company’s short-term fortunes. Welburn doesn’t do drama, however. If the pressure is on, GM’s head designer seems to be enjoying it for the time being. “It’s very energizing,” he says. “what’s going on now.”

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