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9 Questions for GM President Mark Reuss

Posted by on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 in Fall 2010, Feature.

Mark Reuss, BE’86, was named president of GM North America in December 2009, becoming second in command of one of the auto industry’s largest and most prominent companies. Reuss, a mechanical engineering grad, started with GM in 1983 as a student intern. Since then, he has held numerous engineering and management positions across GM brands, including chief engineer roles in GM’s large luxury car vehicles. Before taking over GM North America, he managed GM’s operations in Australia and New Zealand.

Reuss has a love for cars that extends past business. He is a certified test driver on the famed Nürburgring course in Germany and has earned his license for Grand American Road Racing (Grand-Am). He started the GM Performance Division in 2001 and launched associated production and racing vehicles including the V-Series Cadillacs and SS Chevrolets.

Reuss spoke with Vanderbilt Engineering about his new role, how his studies at the School of Engineering helped him in the automotive business, and the soul of the car.

Why did you choose Vanderbilt?

Vanderbilt’s engineering school recruited at Cranbrook, my high school in Michigan. I really wanted to live in a different place and not just go to another big Midwest school.

I had an excellent experience at Vanderbilt. I met people that I never would have met. My relationship with Vanderbilt is still good, by the way. I was just at Vanderbilt for an Engineering Committee of Visitors meeting. There are still people there who taught me.

How did your Vanderbilt education help you start your career?

At Vanderbilt I had the opportunity to work hands-on with engines, which was an experience that was quite different from what my counterparts were doing at other schools. We were learning about fuel systems and thermodynamics, and I’m not sure other places had that.

Also, Vanderbilt was unique (and still is) in that I had a full course load that included ethics, the business of engineering and product development. That was very progressive back then, and I still benefit from that business curriculum that’s enmeshed in the engineering school.

How did that benefit you?

Once I started at GM, I immediately knew that my Vanderbilt experience and the way I had learned to do business were very different. From the start, I wasn’t looked at as “just another GM engineer from the same pattern,” and that’s helped me a lot.

Because of my classes, I was attuned to think about where the competition was going next and how we could beat that. That’s a totally different way of thinking than benchmarking, which was what everyone else was doing. My VUSE education made me think about what people would want next — and that’s a pretty powerful thought. You won’t always be right, but you can anticipate people’s wants and needs. If you’re focused on benchmarking, you’re always going to be following.

Can you map your GM career?

I’ve worked in almost every part of the company — manufacturing, engineering, vehicle development, body shop tooling. I had the chance to put it all together when I was managing GM’s operations in Australia and New Zealand. It was the culmination of all I’ve learned: the general management piece, engine plants, vehicle plants, dealerships, sales and marketing. It was great preparation for what I’m doing now.

My background as an engineer is key to my career. This is still very much a product-based business. You have to anticipate and decide the portfolio of vehicles to produce and market. To do that, you have to know the car and understand its soul.

What is the soul of the car?

It’s kind of a mystical art — the soul of a car, how the vehicle actually drives. You have to integrate all the areas. Is it quieter than the competition? How is the engine and drive quality? You have to think about noise and vibration, ride and handling. Who is your customer? What are the three or four main things that are important to that customer, that will make them walk out of the car they’re in and into yours? That is the soul of the car.

How has the audience of car buyers changed from years ago?

People are much less brand-loyal than they used to be. It certainly makes it interesting, because you can’t rely on the “once a GM, always a GM” concept. Dan Lovinger [BA’87], who is also a Vanderbilt graduate, is a friend of mine who works at MTV. He brought our folks together with some of their folks, and we got a good peek under the curtain about what the millennium generation is, what they like, and what they want next.

Can you tell us about the Volt?

The Volt is a very exciting vehicle. It’s an extended-range electric vehicle. Think about it as a car that is electrically driven with a battery and a little generator on the back. It’s not a traditional hybrid. The Volt runs on electricity that it generates itself. It frees the consumer from being dependent on charging stations — no range anxiety.

The battery is the key to the Volt. It’s a liquid-cooled stack battery cell that’s T-shaped. The battery is actually part of the car. We developed it all inside GM. The mindset in the battery lab is very much science-oriented. There are a lot of young engineers on that project.

What kind of person do you want on your leadership team? Do you look for other engineers?

I want people who love cars. I want people who are passionate about getting the company to win. They have to be willing to leave behind the way that we operated in the past. I believe that if you drive the change of behavior, you change the way we get results.

What’s making you passionate these days?

The new Buick Regal — I really like that car. I also had the opportunity to drive the new V Series Cadillac coupe. That car is about as close to perfect as possible. It’s a rolling piece of sculpture, one of the most dramatic cars I’ve ever seen. When I was driving the car around, I kept finding people taking pictures of themselves with the car. My wife drives a Cadillac Escalade hybrid. We have three kids, and she loves that car.

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