He's a big deal at Ford, but down-to-earth exec hides in plain sight
The guy dressed in jeans and a pullover, sitting near the cafeteria window and holding a paper coffee cup, has a break between back-to-back meetings that run from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the 11th floor. He decided to escape to his favorite spot and hide in plain sight, observing and listening to what’s happening all around him.
People stop to talk. About everything. Water in the bathroom isn’t hot enough. Office space is too hot. A printer isn’t working.
Kumar Galhotra smiles, nods, makes a note, promises to follow up — and does. He could be any guy in any coffee shop. But he’s not just any guy.
He oversees 100,000 employees, including factory workers in 26 auto plants in the U.S. and Canada. He manages design, manufacturing, pricing, sales and financing of the most popular pickups in America that essentially print money for Ford Motor Co. as the primary source of steady revenue and profits during a time of industry transition. He advises legal affairs and government relations, too. If customers are waiting too long for their $97,000 Lincoln Navigators, he untangles the problem. If Ford Expedition SUVs are selling fast in Texas but not Indiana, he figures out why. And does something about it.
This new president of Ford North America is navigating uncharted territory of pending job cuts during a time of global uncertainty and industry transformation.
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More than 5,000 credentialed journalists are descending on the Motor City this week from around the globe, including more than in years past from China, the world’s largest car market.
A spotlight will focus on Galhotra as he opens the Detroit auto show Monday at Cobo Center. For weeks now, Ford and its competitors have been trucking in their hottest new products to woo journalists and consumers who visit the last wintertime gathering of the North American International Auto Show. It moves to June in 2020.
Galhotra, a mechanical engineer educated at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, will make his car show debut in his current role while introducing a redesigned 2020 Ford Explorer and the Mustang Shelby GT 500 in their fastest and most powerful versions, not to mention the limited-edition Lincoln Continental with suicide doors.
Nearly 1 million visitors from all over the globe will come to see, among other vehicles, Cadillac's three-row XT6 SUV, the updated Passat from Volkswagen, the latest Toyota Supra, the new luxury performance coupe from Lexus and the first fully electric crossover.
Men, women and children of every age will climb in and out of vehicles like ants at a summer picnic. And competitors will carry rulers and cameras for reconnaissance.
By the end of 2019, Ford will have its freshest lineup in years. The company says this is a comeback tour that dovetails with a massive restructuring.
What happens in Vegas
In the big picture, Galhotra considers any attention given to him — personally — to be beside the point. He says over and over again that everyone has a story, and he is no more interesting than anyone else. But then he is reminded that he moved car dealers — yes, car dealers — to tears during a recent meeting in Las Vegas. It was an unusual moment, sharing his personal story.
“Every immigrant family has layers to their story,” Galhotra said.
He changes the subject. He'’ll return to it later.
He often maintains a bemused smile. His presence projects a sense of authority before he even speaks. He commands a room with no words. He doesn't raise his voice. He moves methodically. He draws flow charts to relax and outline goals for discussion.
“Kumar is very calming. It’s his tone of voice,” said Mike Pruitt, chief program engineer for Super Duty trucks. “There is often a reluctance for people to share a lot of data for fear of being criticized. Kumar is not going to punish anybody. He creates an atmosphere that translates to earlier visibility of an issue, a problem, a concern. And he's down to earth.”
Pruitt continued, “You don’t see him in a suit and tie. He’s not old and formal and corporate. He’s being himself.”
A goal under the direction of Kumar Galhotra is not wanting to be the smartest in the room or have every level of management serve the bosses at the next level. What is most effective, Galhotra said, is holding teams accountable during the 17 meetings he holds twice a week. Two dozen people stand together reviewing notes and data taped to the walls, examining and discussing all elements of the business.
“When you sit down at a long conference table, it slows us down,” Galhotra said. “We’re literally redesigning to be faster, more nimble and efficient.”
He had nameplates stripped from office doors on the executive level and transformed the area at Ford World Headquarters known as the Glass House into what people now call franchise rooms or energy rooms. Each is marked with “F-Series” or “Expedition” or “Mustang.” Every player from each team meets to talk directly and avoid memos and powerpoints and long waits for anything.
“Speed is money,” Galhotra said.
He takes a reporter through meeting after meeting. He leaves the media alone to talk with employees in the hallway or around the corner. He is simply not interested in monitoring or censoring, it seems. He trusts his team.
Ron Johnson, Americas quality director, said Ford has changed under Galhotra's leadership. “You go straight to the decision-makers instead of going through four or five layers of approval.”
When the team has good ideas and meets company guidelines to move ahead, they should "get out of the habit of asking permission," Galhotra said. "Get going. You have the power. Don't ask."
Talking on the phone in a conference room, Earl Lucas, chief designer at Lincoln, ended his call to step into the hall and add, "Franchise rooms and energy rooms didn’t exist before this. It’s a much more intimate conversation. Usually management does things to you and not with you. Kumar is human. He does things with you. And when I talk, with all his experience, he knows what I mean. I don’t have to simplify terms.”
As an aide to Galhotra, Said Deep, who also serves as communications lead for Ford North America, said, “He doesn’t pretend to know all the answers. People find him approachable. And it’s important to have people tell their problems. You don’t want surprises. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake."
Galhotra is usually the one standing in the back of the room, not up front. Arms are always folded, head tilted while listening. He travels solo, not with handlers. He is finishing up his first year in a role assumed after his predecessor resigned abruptly after admitting to still-unspecified inappropriate behavior.
As president of Lincoln from 2014-18, Galhotra is widely credited with turning around that once-stale brand.
“Kumar, with paltry product news during his years at Lincoln, essentially had to entertain the automotive media with finger puppets projected onto an empty screen,” said Eric Noble, an automotive product design consultant and a professor of vehicle technology at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. “Now, the products coming out for that brand reveal he was a real engineering leader all along. Ford needs that.”
The Lincoln Navigator luxury SUV won “best truck” in North America at the 2018 Detroit auto show.
Galhotra was the only industry winner who took the stage and thanked not only the judges and Ford employees, but specifically the UAW members who build the vehicles.
He loved being at Lincoln. He doesn’t say he misses it, but it sounds like he does.
“I was very much enjoying Lincoln,” Galhotra said.
But his mother always had trouble keeping track of his job.
“When I was running Lincoln, my mother thought I was leading Cadillac," he said laughing. "She’d call and ask, 'How are things at Cadillac?' She's super sharp, but cars don't mean a lot to her."
Under Galhotra, Lincoln overhauled its “quiet luxury” product lineup and grew global sales. He also replaced the confusing “MK” vehicle names with Continental and Nautilus. Not only couldn’t Chinese consumers remember the lettered names, shoppers on this side of the world joked about the challenge, too.
“Kumar brings wisdom and understanding about what it means to bring a brand kicked down back up,” Dave Sullivan, then-manager of product analysis at AutoPacific Inc., said after Galhotra was named to his top role in 2018. “When you’re at Lincoln, it’s a brand that has been laughed at for years. Now people are taking a second look. This is what the Ford brand needs now. Kumar knows the formula.”
At the LA Auto Show in December 2017, on the eve of big product launches, industry analysts said Lincoln was "working magic on a budget of string, wire and gum."
They spoke then, and now, with respect for the quiet engineer.
Pickups and Mustangs
At 53, Galhotra has spent three decades at Ford working in senior engineering and product strategy.
"His experience at Lincoln, I think, really had a fundamental impact on how he approached getting North America back on its track. Because he loves product," said Jim Farley, Ford president for global markets. "He knows what Ford is good at. He spent all his career as a global engineer. He knows we’re really good at pickup trucks and emotional product like Mustang.”
Galhotra has lived in St. Louis, Buenos Aires, New Jersey, Japan, Thailand and China. He reports to Farley, who appreciates observing "a new way of working with the North American team. Most of all, this endorsement for decision-making, allowing them to take risk.”
The Lincoln Navigator and upcoming Aviator are highlights touted by the company often, and Galhotra gets the credit.
“They have had such a tremendous impact on our business,” Farley said. “It’s so exciting to see Kumar energize the team, not just with new products and cost control but actually with how they’re working, not from the top down but bottom up. “
At the same time, he is someone who stops in the hall to ask an employee about how a family member is handling an Atlantic snowstorm and listen to a story about a child’s history exam. In the end, the man looks at Galhotra, pauses, and says, “Thank you for asking.”
GQ photo shoot
Traveling in the company of Galhotra is unlike a typical executive experience. He laughs freely with strangers in elevators, including one woman who teased that he looked like he was ready for a GQ magazine photo shoot. She had no idea he was a big boss.
Later, while walking through the lobby, and passing a Ford Fusion race car model that won the NASCAR Cup Series just before Thanksgiving 2018, Galhotra talked about champion driver Joey Logano and the excitement of seeing the experience. Steve Kraning, a Ford supplier with Hatteras Printing, stopped to discuss NASCAR. He confessed to being a huge fan of the sport and the driver. He then introduced himself to Galhotra, having no idea who he was. He asked him if he had maybe seen him on TV, not knowing why he looked familiar.
The executive pulled out his cellphone and shared stories and photos of the race car driver. When Kraning walked away, Galhotra turned to an aide and said, "Let's send him a hat or whatever we can find from NASCAR. Do you know where his office is?"
Galhotra became vice president, product development for Asia Pacific and Africa in 2009. He led the team that developed a plan to bring more than 50 new vehicles and powertrains to the regions.
Since joining the company in 1988, his official biography notes he led the introduction of the Ford Ranger to South American markets in 1998; he was the chief engineer for the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner in the early 2000s, and he was vehicle programs director for five vehicle lines in the mid-2000s.
Between 2005 and 2008, he was assigned to Mazda’s headquarters in Hiroshima, where he was responsible for program management and product planning worldwide.
The business landscape is changing, Galhotra said, "and the propulsion system in place for 115 years is going to change in a very drastic way."
He continued, "There are concerns about the uncontrollable. The tariff environment has been volatile."
But Ford is about embracing its place in American industry and American society.
"It's our heritage," Galhotra said. "The Ford brand lives in the public psyche. The American public believes we make great trucks, and we do. That trust has been earned over decades."
On the beach
Fact is, Galhotra's switch to Lincoln "was quite a surprise. I got a phone call saying, 'We think you should lead Lincoln.'"
Galhotra works a lot. He is divorced, travels for business, and stays fit running near his home in Birmingham, despite midday Kit Kat bars. He relaxes with nonfiction, most recently the bestseller "Thinking, Fast and Slow," written by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences laureate, who explains how the brain is wired and why we make the decisions we make.
"Omigod, it's an amazing book, one of the best books I've read in the past five years," said Galhotra, who carries a Kindle everywhere.
He is considered within the company to be exceptionally private and focused on work.
Yet he can be suddenly unpredictable and revealing.
"If I weren't doing this, I'd have a small shack on a beach selling fresh seafood. I love to cook and wish I could cook more. I'm all about authenticity," Galhotra said. "I get annoyed when my sister tries to make fusion Indian. I tell her she needs to cut her R&D budget. I tell her to stick to what you know. She says sometimes it’s an acquired taste. And I say, 'I’m 53. I’ve acquired tastes.' "
Smiling, he talks about his brother and his sister and his mother.
Father and son
This is the story of a 13-year-old boy from Chandigarh, India, who said goodbye to his father, an engineer who taught engineering, when he left for America.
“My father came here first, looking for a better life for his kids,” Galhotra said. “We had such a long separation. It was hard on the family. He was doing odd jobs to sustain himself. And when he had second thoughts, he saw an ad in the paper looking for electricians at the Rouge Assembly Plant. That job gave him confidence. And he thought, ‘I can make a life here.’ ”
Munshi Galhotra died in the fall of 2013, a Ford electrician who saw his son become vice president of global engineering.
All these years later, Kumar Galhotra is an executive who surprised car dealers in Vegas, leaving some quite emotional after a meeting that included spontaneous testimonials.
"I tell my story now," he said, "because we, as a team, were talking about what it means to be Ford proud."
Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-222-6512. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid