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WomenOf the Month 3-07: Saturn?s Liz Wetzel & Lisa Hutchinson

The automobile industry remains male-dominated, but women are making their mark. Saturn, a division of General Motors Corp., is led by general manager Jill Lajdziak, and women designers and marketers spearheaded the recent success of cars such as the Saturn Aura, which won Best of Show in Detroit in December and was designed by a team of women. This month’s WomenOf the Month Liz Wetzel, global brand design director, and Lisa Hutchinson, director of brand and product development for Saturn, have worked for GM nearly their entire careers. They talked about the exciting process of designing and bringing cars to market and opportunities for women in the industry.

If you like design and you like cars, you would love her field, says Wetzel. When she was earning her degree in industrial design from the University of Michigan School of Art and Design, she was one of very few women and remains in the minority today. She didn’t let it bother her. She also studied at several art schools, including the Parsons School of Design in New York. “I love what I do—it’s very exciting,apostrophe she says. “You need to be logical as well as creative and be able to balance the business aspects.apostrophe

Shifting Experience
Wetzel notes that the naming of the Aura as Car of the Year marked a turning point for Saturn in achieving its goals. “We wanted to match customer experience with our product,apostrophe she says. “We needed to shift the sense of what Saturn offers. The products were considered somewhat lackluster and our mission was to create in the Aura and the Sky Roadster, our convertible that sold out early in 2006, a great experience as well as a great product. We needed the design to make it an exciting, pleasant place to be via materials, textures, colors, etc.

“With the Sky, we had to change our viewpoint from the Aura. The Sky is a two-seat roadster so we took a different approach.apostrophe

“In all cases, we’ve put more refinement into finishes. As we planned what we would do, we had to constantly consider in every tradeoff what the customer would think, so we would retain old customers and attract new ones.apostrophe Wetzel notes that GM’s Bob Lutz is the product guru who delivers a whole sensitivity to great interior design.

How did being one of just a few women in the automotive industry affect her work-life? “I was used to it, because that’s the way my school courses were as well,apostrophe says Wetzel. “It just made me want to prove myself more. I did the best job I could. I didn’t want being female to either hinder or help me on the job.apostrophe She succeeded: After she moved into design, mostly with Cadillac, the Seville and STS were awarded “Interior Design of the Year Awards—Luxury Categoryapostrophe by Inside Automotives International Magazine in both 1997 and 1998, and she became Vehicle Chief Designer in 1997, the first female to hold that position at GM.

Wetzel’s next assignment is to work on brand strategies for all the brands at the design center. She’ll put together a team of designers for the other brands such as Pontiac and Chevy to create a vision and then depiction for their design. “It’s very strategic, based on the success we’ve had at defining what Saturn is. Now we’ll do that for our other brands.apostrophe The job involves projecting what tastes will be five years into the future.

Wetzel notes the importance of women’s influence—about 83% in vehicle sales decisions—and ticks off a couple of the Aura’s features that may appeal particularly to women: adjustable pedals and steering wheels, remote start, and storage on the interiors. Although women are practical, they want exciting products as well, she says.

Liaison between Tech and Consumer
Lisa Hutchinson forged a link with GM early on when she attended the General Motors Institute’s work-study program, now known as Kettering University, while earning her undergraduate degree. She found she especially loved the business technology side of the industry, where consumer behavior and psychology came into play. “We’re the liaison between the technology community and the consumer, translating and feeding that information into the product development process,apostrophe she says. She’s been with GM more than 20 years.

When Hutchinson entered the automotive industry, she, too, was in the minority as a woman. “I didn’t consider it limiting, however,apostrophe she says. “I was considered somewhat exotic in my field, which was more industrial engineering. I was also blessed with a family background where it was expected that you would go on through school and provide for yourself. I went to a strong magnet high school that helped prepare me.apostrophe She also holds an MBA from the University of Michigan.

Hutchinson began her career in market research, moving through advertising, customer satisfaction and into product development to work with design and engineering for future products. She joined Saturn in 1990 the day that the first car was sent down the assembly line because she was intrigued by its values of teamwork, trust and respect. She felt a resonance with her own value system and was determined to work on the next generation of Saturn small cars. “It was fascinating to do research on customers in the early days,apostrophe she recalls. “We had to separate them out from the sample because they were so enthusiastic they would skew the results.apostrophe

She directed market research for GM Europe in Zurich, Switzerland, from 1995 to 1998, an experience that was rewarding from both a personal and professional standpoint. “My husband couldn’t work there, so I had a stay-at-home spouse for my daughter,apostrophe says Hutchinson. “They developed an unusual bonding during those years that was really special.

Global Links
“Professionally, it was fascinating to see the global nature of GM and the diversity of the company. Out of the 15 market researchers I worked with, six or seven represented different nationalities and languages. I learned a lot about leadership and the multicultural experience. Furthermore, even before the Saturn/Opal collaboration that now exists, I had made contacts because of my experience with GM Europe.apostrophe

From 1998 to 2002 she returned as Saturn’s marketing director, heading up marketing launches of the company’s expanding portfolio of the L-Series, Vue and ION and more. She then was marketing director for GM Cardmember Services before rejoining Saturn in May 2005 as Saturn reinvented its portfolio with the Sky Roadster, the Aura midsize sedan, the Outlook crossover utility, the 2008 Vue compact crossover and the Astra compact car.

While Hutchison loves many of the cars, she thinks women will appreciate the “fantastic reinvention of the multipurpose vehicleapostrophe that is the Outlook. It holds eight people, has a fuel economy of 26 mpg on the highway/18 mpg in the city with better horsepower and safety equipment than most SUVs, she notes. It comes in either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.

Can the import battle be won? Half of the buyers would have bought an import if they had not have bought a Saturn, acknowledges Hutchison. “We’re working with Opal on the Astra, which is a version of the Opal, to help us to appeal to import buyers. It is definitely a European inspired car,apostrophe she says.

If anything, these women must be forward thinking. They are pondering products for 2010 and beyond.