Shifting Gears


Never before has a General Motors auto designer been trusted with leadership of a product division or brand.

Designers are known as the artistic types of the industry. And, although they’re regarded as dedicated and talented, the top management jobs traditionally are the domain of seasoned MBAs. One recent exception is Chrysler’s Ralph Gilles, who last summer became Dodge brand president and CEO on top of his role as design vice president.

The other is Bryan Nesbitt. They’re the two top designers now running critically important U.S. auto brands. While that says much about their talent, it also speaks to the importance of design in today’s fickle, government-mandated auto marketplace.

Nesbitt, a 40-year-old Phoenix native, studied architecture and industrial design at Georgia Institute of Technology, then transferred to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. While there, he interned at Chrysler’s Pacifica Studios. He must have made a strong impression, because Chrysler snapped him up for an advanced design job in Auburn Hills as soon as he graduated.

Nesbitt became known as the principal designer of Chrysler’s retro-look PT Cruiser. That was during the happy days before Chrysler was absorbed by Daimler. Bob Lutz (now GM vice chairman) was then in charge of Chrysler product.

Then GM came calling. “I wasn’t looking,” Nesbitt says. “Chrysler was humming along quite nicely at the time, and this showed up unexpectedly. I interviewed with [then GM president] Ron Zarella and [then design vice president] Wayne Cherry. Wayne was quite a visionary, and we found a lot of common ground.” Nesbitt was hired as Chevrolet chief designer in 2001 and soon oversaw creation of the retro-look mini-Suburban Chevy HHR that would rival his own PT Cruiser.

“We’ve got something established with an identity and an equity that we can continue to build on.”

When Lutz came out of semi-retirement to take over GM’s global product development later that year, Nesbitt found himself reunited with his ex-boss’ famous ex-boss. In January 2004, he became executive director of GME Design and a member of its Strategy Board. During those years, he directed the exterior themes of two North American Cars of the Year: the ’07 Saturn Aura and the ’08 Chevy Malibu, as well as the ’09 European Car of the Year Opel Insignia.

Nesbitt’s challenge was to reposition GM Europe’s brands. “At Opel,” he says, “we looked at everything that interfaces with the customer. Part of that was the product design, getting much more emotional and expressive, and we worked very closely with marketing.” Saab presented the rare opportunity to redesign its entire product portfolio — a heroic effort that will be lost if a Saab savior isn’t found.

In April 2007, new Global Design Vice President Ed Welburn brought Nesbitt back stateside as vice president of North American design. And it was Welburn who approached him about the recently vacated Cadillac job. “Ed asked if I was interested. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ ” Nesbitt got the job in July.

Since Cadillac was on a bit of a roll before the late 2008 collapse, he doesn’t disagree that his challenge was to not screw it up. But he emphasizes that Cadillac needs to continue raising the standards. “We’ve got something established with an identity and an equity that we can continue to build on,” he says.

How has Nesbitt’s design background prepared him for brand-management challenges? “Ultimately, all of it goes back to customer interface,” he says. “The product itself is … a major piece of advertising driving around as a billboard. My history in design has included working intimately with marketing to understand the target, the customer, and the goals.”

Ask Lutz why Nesbitt was chosen for this job now, and he says: “He’s a natural marketing talent.

“That’s why we pulled him out of design and gave him Cadillac. And he’s doing very well.”