FROM SLACKER TO SUPERSTAR: Gilles is new darling of automotive design world:
Ralph Gilles is the design director of the hot-selling Chrysler 300. He displays a drawing of a prototype.
In 1988, Ralph Gilles epitomized the slacker label slapped on his generation, the so-called apathetic group branded "X."
Gilles (pronounced jeel) had dropped out of college and was living in his parents' basement in Montreal. He whiled away his time eating granola cereal, watching "Dukes of Hazzard" reruns and cartoons, and lamenting the sorry state of vehicles made across the border in America.
Today, the 35-year-old Gilles is a bona-fide superstar in the automotive industry.
In fact, the car designer, who was born in New York City but grew up as a Canadian gearhead, has been a knight in shining armor for the Auburn Hills-based Chrysler Group.
The former Chrysler Corp. had been faltering since its 1998 merger with Daimler-Benz AG. Under German management, the Chrysler division was beset with layoffs, plant closings and sagging morale.
But in the past year, the division, which sells Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles, has been buoyed by two Gilles productions: the Chrysler 300 sedan, which has been a smash hit, and the solidly successful Dodge Magnum wagon.
Those vehicles helped Chrysler post an operating profit of $1.9 billion last year, compared with a $637-million loss in 2003, and have given Gilles and his fellow car designers some newfound say-so.THE GILLES DEAL
NAME: Ralph V. Gilles.
TITLE: Design director, exterior/interior studio 3, at the Chrysler Group in Auburn Hills. He oversees the design of Chrysler and Dodge large cars and minivans.
EDUCATION: Master's degree in business administration, Michigan State University, 2003. Bachelor's degree in transportation design, College for Creative Studies in Detroit, 1992.
FAMILY: Wife, Doris, and two daughters, Tia, 6, and Sidney, 4.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Gilles has worked for the Chrysler Group since 1992. He was lead interior designer of the Dodge Viper GTS/R, Dodge ESX2 and Jeep Jeepster concept vehicles, and production versions of the 2002 Jeep Liberty and 2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10. In 2001, he was named a design director, and oversaw the design of the 2005 Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum and Dodge Charger -- all of which are built on the same LX platform.
WHAT HE DRIVES: Gilles' wife and kids cart around in a Chrysler Town & Country minivan. But Gilles makes his way in an SRT-8 performance version of the Chrysler 300C, which hits showrooms soon, as well as a 1997 Viper that he has customized. It has a 10-cylinder engine that produces 600 horsepower, enough to provide Gilles with plenty of excitement when he's racing it as a hobby. Gilles, who professes to love minivans, previously raced a customized Dodge Caravan.
"Style is your weapon in this competitive environment," maintains Gilles, who oversees the design of large Chrysler and Dodge cars and minivans.
But Gilles' act three will be a controversial four-door Dodge Charger, slated to hit showrooms this summer, and it may test his staying power.
When an automaker resuscitates a revered name such as Charger, expectations are high and comparisons inevitable. That's what makes revivals challenging -- as Pontiac is learning with its cooly received GTO and Ford learned with the Thunderbird a few years ago.
Gilles thinks the new Charger captures the essence of the bad-boy muscle car, a version of which starred as the General Lee in the old "Dukes of Hazzard" TV series. The addition of two back doors, he said, is simply practical for today's buyers.
But Charger purists are deriding the four doors as sacrilege -- putting some heat on the wunderkind Gilles, whose next project will be to add pizzazz to the company's minivan lineup.
"The new Charger would run circles around most of the muscle cars from any era," Gilles says. "That is what an automaker is suppose to do -- evolve the species, not be paralyzed by it."
If the 300 is any guide, the Charger will result in another big year for Chrysler and Gilles.
The bold 300 has buoyed the company's outlook, performance and image. It may be hard to believe that just one car could accomplish all that. But the 300 was named Car of the Year in practically every magazine last year and has been embraced across the spectrum, from trend-setting hip-hop youth to the comb-over crowd.
Several new products unveiled by Chrysler in recent years, such as the Pacifica crossover, got off to sluggish or sloppy starts, prompting jitters throughout the then-struggling company, so the success of the 300 has allowed many executives to exhale. Sales of Chrysler-brand vehicles increased 27 percent in 2004 compared to the prior year, a big jump for an old Detroit brand.
And, importantly, the 300 seems to have helped employees discover what it means to be "Chrysler" again -- even under German management. Essentially, the 300 has told them that they can be as boldly American as they want.
"Our products are American -- they're truly American," says Gilles, who has now lived half of his life each in the United States and Canada and has dual citizenship.
"We're not trying to be European. We're being ourselves."
The impact of the 300 is especially noteworthy when one considers it wasn't even on the market for all of 2004. It hit showrooms in April, so the full effect of the 300 won't be realized until later this year.
The 300 has earned Gilles a mountain of praise.
In 2003, he received an Automotive Hall of Fame Young Leadership and Excellence Award. In 2004, Time magazine labeled him the "Bling King."
Earlier this year, Gilles, who is black, was treated to what he described as an "emotional" standing ovation from a mostly African-American crowd at the Urban Wheel Awards in Detroit, where the 300 won Urban Car of the Year. This month, he received the President's Award from U.S. Black Engineer magazine. And the list of accolades goes on and on.
The biggest praise, though, comes from Gilles' mother, a Haitian native, who pretty much thinks her son now runs Chrysler -- a notion that he's tried to discourage.
In fact, there have been so many media reports about Gilles and his "Baby Bentley" in newspapers and magazines and on television that his coworkers have joked that he needs his own public relations department.
Gilles, who has tiger-green eyes and wears his head boldly bald, is so attractive that he was an attention-grabber well before the 300. In 1998, he was one of a few DaimlerChrysler employees in the world featured in an advertisement promoting the transatlantic merger, and the following year, People magazine dubbed him one of the sexiest men in Detroit.
At first, all of this attention prompted some exasperation from the formerly reclusive artist, who modestly notes that he only directed the design of the 300.
What that means, Gilles explains, is that he merely helped meld sketches and ideas by other designers, in much the same way a movie director oversees a script, actors and sets.
When Gilles didn't like what he saw, he sent designers back to their drawing boards, computers and clay sculptures with guidance. And he led lots of passionate discussions about how to properly revive the grand American automobile of days gone by.
"The car is truly the product of a team, in every way possible," says Gilles, who readily confesses to being tired of the publicity.
But the truth is that Gilles is far more confident than he was two years ago, when he drove his 300 onto the floor of the New York International Auto Show as a virtual unknown, not quite sure what people would think.
Lately, Gilles, who earned a degree in transportation design from Detroit's College for Creative Studies in 1992 and an executive MBA from Michigan State University in 2003, is so effervescent that he actually broke out into dance moves during an interview. The success of the 300 has earned Gilles some valuable chips within Chrysler and raised his sights for the future.
"I want to help steer the future of the company," Gilles says. "That's ultimately where I want to be. ... I would like to think I'm still modest, but you get validated by your achievements. I do feel like I've evolved."
A 4-year-old letter
But how did Gilles get from his parents' basement to a top job at Chrysler?
That is a story of love, luck and, seemingly, destiny.
Gilles was a typical boy who liked to play with Hot Wheels and Formula 1 model cars as a kid. He was so talented at sketching vehicles in his early years that his aunt wrote directly to then-Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, saying he should hire her 14-year-old nephew.
An encouraging reply letter recommending three design schools came back from K. Neil Walling, Chrysler's passenger car chief of design at the time.
Soon afterward, though, the letter was lost. The car-loving Gilles went on to complete high school and enroll in engineering school at Vanier College in Montreal. He dropped out quickly and described himself as being in a funk, not quite sure he wanted to be an engineer after all.
His older brother, Max, was upset to see Ralph squandering his talents and worrying their parents. He recalled the letter from Chrysler, and that one of the schools was Detroit's CCS. He insisted his brother apply. The application deadline for the next semester was in about a week and required 10 sketches.
The way Ralph Gilles tells it, the whole family became engaged in the enrollment process, making him coffee so he wouldn't sleep and critiquing his sketches as he hurried to meet his deadline with a new sense of purpose. Gilles recalls being covered in pencil lead by the end of the week, and Mom sent the application to the school by overnight delivery.
The acceptance letter came soon afterward, and when he graduated in 1992, Gilles was hired at Chrysler.
His first assignment was designing small interior details like speedometer needles, but the car enthusiast moved up the ladder quickly by passionately fighting for details he believed in, such as satin chrome, which has more of a frosted finish, on the interior of the Jeep Liberty.
In 2001, at the age of 31, he was named a design director, and he's kept fighting. In recent years, he successfully battled company insiders who didn't think the Magnum would sell because station wagons weren't considered cool.
"We've made them cool," he notes.
In addition to his duties at Chrysler, Gilles now teaches at CCS, runs SkunkWerks, a group of auto enthusiasts within Chrysler, and races cars. Of all those things, Gilles says he most likes talking to students about finding their way in life.
"It gives me a lot of energy to share my story with them," he says.
He warns his students that once they graduate, "they'll never have this much control," so they should push their designs to the edge while they can. And it's safe to say many of his students adore him.
"He's like the best teacher I've ever had," said Dave Rojas, 28, of Philadelphia.
Gilles tries to prepare the young artists for the realities of corporate culture, where compromise and presentation are crucial skills. He says the students help stir his creative juices.
"It's the freshness, the innocence that I like," Gilles says.
Sometime after his father died in 1998, Gilles found Walling's letter among his dad's possessions and was overcome with how "weird" his journey to Chrysler had been. Suffice it to say, Gilles feels like he belongs in the Auburn Hills high-rise with the pentastar on top.
"I really see myself with this company," he says, "and I really have no desire at all to look elsewhere."
March 5, 2005
BY SARAH A. WEBSTER via: http://www.freep.com/money/autonews/mrthree5e_20050305.htm
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
Contact SARAH A. WEBSTER at 313-222-5394 or [email protected] .