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Chrysler Group Industry Day Brings Design Talk, Networking to Northwestern

Times have been tough in the auto industry — but hard times can breed great success.

That was the message of Chrysler Group design chief Ralph Gilles, who visited the McCormick School of Engineering October 10. Addressing a standing-room-only crowd of students, Gilles shared insights into his career, gave tips for job seekers in the automotive industry, and even offered a crack at a job or internship in his growing car company.

The presentation was the culmination of a full day of Chrysler Group-related activities at Northwestern that included meetings with student groups; the chance to explore a Dodge Dart, Jeep Wrangler, SRT Viper, and other vehicles; and a shot at winning $45,000 toward a new car.

“Northwestern is one of the key schools in our strategy to attract inspired, entrepreneurial talent to Chrysler Group,” said Gilles, president and CEO of the Street and Racing Technology brand and Motorsports and senior vice president of design at Chrysler Group LLC. “Being in Evanston for the day, I was so impressed by the caliber of the students and faculty. It gives me hope seeing the amazing talent and skill coming out of this generation.”

Chrysler Group, which owns brands like Dodge and Jeep, has seen a significant resurgence since its formation in June 2009, after its predecessor company filed for bankruptcy. In those days, Gilles recalled, a mere 5,000 employees came to work each day in a complex built for nearly three times as many workers.

Today Chrysler Group has increased its market share from 5.5 percent to 11.9 percent. Still, it remains an “underdog” to bigger competitors like GM and Ford, Gilles said.

“We’ve had to stay nimble,” he said. That caused the company to take more risks — and actually fueled innovation. “When a company is working well, it’s like a symphony. That’s what Chrysler feels like now.”

Gilles provided a glimpse into Chrysler Group’s culture, from the hiring of outspoken CEO Sergio Marchionne, to the company’s redesigns of classic models like the Dodge Viper, to future challenges for the car industry.

The current population shift back to cities and a need for more fuel efficiency are among those challenges, Gilles said — especially given Americans’ historical reluctance to purchase very small, lightweight, or futuristic designs.

“We’re going to have to tap into the best minds in the world,” Gilles told the students. “And we’re hiring.”

Following a question-and-answer session, students attended a networking reception with Chrysler Group representatives from various specialties, including engineering, finance, marketing, government affairs, and product design.