By Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Co sells its big, brawny trucks for their torque, testosterone and hefty profits, so when the U.S. automaker wanted to introduce the next models, they turned to one of the toughest executives in its ranks.
Global manufacturing chief Diana Tremblay is one of the highest-ranking women in the automotive industry. Throughout her 35-year career at GM, she has made her mark in what were regarded as male domains, from directing foundry workers to staring down union labor negotiators.
Now she faces an even more critical task for the world's largest automaker - ensuring the smooth 2013 introduction of the remodeled full-size pickup trucks and SUVs, GM's high-profile equivalent of a new Apple iPhone.
While executives at GM touted its strength in overseas markets like China after the Detroit company's bankruptcy and $50 billion U.S. taxpayer bailout, it turns out the profit engine has instead been North America. And nothing is more important to that success than the second-quarter introduction next year of the big Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups and related SUVs, which analysts say generate profits of $12,000 to $14,000 per vehicle.
The "military precision" of the changeover for the truck platform dubbed K2XX has impressed Tremblay's boss, U.S. Navy veteran and GM Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson. "She's small in physical stature, but she's like a pit bull," he said.
But the 5-foot-2 Tremblay faces a far different task than she would have before GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Instead of leading the changeover at seven North American plants that used to make the big GM vehicles, her team now must do the job with four.
"It takes a different way of thinking about how you do your work when you don't have excess capacity," Tremblay, 52, said in an interview at GM's Wentzville, Missouri, commercial van plant.
It is a somewhat welcome problem, though, for an executive who during the bankruptcy helped negotiate key labor deals while working to shore up employee morale.
"Everybody was worried about their jobs," she said. "The most often-asked question when you talked to anybody - 'Well, are you still employed?' That was difficult."
While new small cars like the Chevy Cruze have garnered positive reviews, the big pickups and SUVs - Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade - remain top draws at dealerships. Their combined U.S. sales rose 11 percent last year to more than 799,000 vehicles.
And even though they are the oldest truck models on the market, GM pickups still ranked No. 2 in all U.S. vehicle sales last year, behind only Ford Motor Co's F-150 truck.
Trucks and SUVs account for about 60 percent of GM's North American profit, analysts said.
Citi analyst Itay Michaeli estimates the new trucks could bring GM more than $1 billion in additional operating earnings in 2013 and 2014.
That kind of money leads to jockeying, especially among U.S. automakers, for bragging rights about which has the toughest truck with the most towing capacity or highest fuel-efficiency.
GM ran an ad during the broadcast of this year's NFL Super Bowl that depicts an apocalyptic scene in which Silverado owners escape death and make it to a pre-arranged meeting point in their trucks while a friend who drives a Ford does not.
GM has told analysts and investors the magnitude of product advancements in the new trucks will be as large as the last redesign in 2006, which helped the automaker gain market share.
GM North American chief Mark Reuss told Reuters the launch remained on track and that the trucks would be competitive with rival offerings.
Tremblay, who speaks in a low, measured voice that has managers and factory workers leaning in to hear her, may be a GM insider, but as a woman executive in a part of an industry dominated by men, she also is an outsider.
"There is maybe a tendency to underestimate (me)," she said. "That's not always bad."
FORGED IN DEFIANCE
Tremblay's career was forged in the foundries of Defiance, Ohio, where she supervised men whose job was swinging sledge hammers to knock excess metal off auto castings.
Family history, however, set her path earlier, as her grandfather spent his entire career as an hourly employee at GM's now-idled Janesville, Wisconsin, assembly plant. Her father was the first in the family to go to college, graduating from Flint, Michigan's Kettering University, a training ground for many GM managers.
Her father rose to head maintenance at GM's Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant, which Tremblay sometimes visited on weekends. As a child, she would also listen to his work stories.
Tremblay later started her career at the Defiance casting plant.
"I don't know if a woman had set foot up in that area ever," she said. "It was a dark, dingy place. I was probably 18 at that point. It was pretty intimidating, so you learn pretty fast."
She herself graduated from Kettering, where she met her husband, who works in powertrain engineering at GM.
Tremblay, who mostly drives a Chevy Tahoe SUV and uses her Pontiac Solstice sports car for special occasions, rose to become head of labor relations in North America in 2006. A year later, she helped negotiate the watershed VEBA deal with the United Auto Workers union that shifted GM's retiree health care liabilities off its balance sheet.
"A lot of people have a hard time believing we worked well together, but we did," said Cal Rapson, the former UAW vice president who negotiated with her.
Walking the assembly line at the Wentzville plant outside St. Louis earlier this year, Tremblay recalled the long hours. "If my husband and I were going anywhere, he would drive because I'd just fall asleep," she said. "Anytime I sat down, I would just doze off. I wasn't very exciting at home during that period."
Her adaptability comes in handy in her current job, which she took on in 2009, as workers at the plants under her care learn to adjust to changing on the fly. Instead of shutting down paint shops for two weeks, changes must happen while the assembly line is running.
In Fairfax, Kansas, for instance, employees replaced 1.3 miles of conveyor belts a section at a time last year so as not to shut down a busy plant that builds the Chevy Malibu and Buick LaCrosse mid-sized cars. Now Tremblay's team must basically pull off a similar trick on a larger scale, putting the tooling in place for the new full-size trucks while minimizing down time to maintain production of current models.
It is all part of a bigger effort for Tremblay and executives like her, who came up through a system deemed too bureaucratic, to mold GM into a leaner, faster-moving company.
"I used to spend a lot of time in meetings that, honestly, when I walked out of the room, not a lot was different than when I walked in," she said. "That is certainly not the case today.
"I talk to people in the plants who tell me unsolicited that this is the most fun that they have had in their career at GM."
(Editing by Martin Howell and Lisa Von Ahn)