No one had yet conceived of the Prowler in 1985 when Chrysler Corp. executives singled out Cynthia J. Frey from a Boston consumer clinic and asked her to come to work in Detroit.
Now, a decade later and with a stimulating academic career teaching marketing at Boston College behind her, Ms. Frey is program manager for the innovative open-wheel roadster that rolls into showrooms a year from now (see WAW--March '96, p.91).
Though "the voice of the customer" has become a hackneyed mantra, the story of Cindy Frey's career is a compelling illustration of what can happen when a carmaker truly listens.
Call it serendipity, perhaps. Chrysler invited her to take part in a focus group to collect consumer feedback on new products. Much of the discussion centered on mundane items such as mileage, safety and reliability.
But Ms. Frey, who grew up in Detroit the daughter of a Chrysler purchasing manager, had a lot more to say. As the meeting went on, she realized she was beginning to stand out.
"To them (the others in the focus group), I think their car was like their refrigerator -- a thing to use," she says. "I'm much more passionate about cars."
Chrysler executives couldn't help but notice her enthusiasm and soon coaxed her to, Detroit on the marketing side. They were interested in her gearhead enthusiasm as will as her academic credentials: She has a PhD and MBA from the University of Michigan, a BBA from Western Michigan University and served as department chairperson and associate professor in the Boston College School of Management.
It didn't take much persuading. As Jack Neuhauser, dean of the management school at Boston College and Ms. Frey's former boss, reflects, "I knew that if anything ever came up in Detroit, she'd be hard pressed (to say no). She's always had an incredible interest in cars."
At first it seemed like the dream job, back in her hometown, working for the same company as her father.
Yet after the initial honeymoon, the usually tenacious Ms. Frey began to lose interest. Marketing, she found, was more fragmented within a large corporation. In the auto industry in particular it was more about hyping the product regardless of its limitations: just push the metal, don't reshape it.
"For all the years that I've been teaching marketing and writing academically and doing research on that subject, when it comes to cars, I'm much more content being on the product side," she says.
When Mr. Neuhauser reminded her that Boston College would love to have her back, she returned to the classroom -- for 18 months.
Chrysler, however, won in the end. In 1988, Doug Evans, then the program management chief on the Sundance/Shadow team, brought her back to Chrysler to stay. This time she was put in charge of product planning for the LH platform. Then she was instrumental in a similar role for the Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Stratus and Plymouth Breeze.
And in January 1994 she joined the Prowler team as program manager.
She may have been an outsider, but Ms. Frey, now 43, is no stranger to the hot-rod scene from which the Prowler generously borrows. She rebuilt much of the 1970 Dodge Challenger that moved with her back and forth between Boston and Detroit. In fact, she has displayed a keen interest in cars since the age of 10.
"I marched my dad down the street and said, `Dad, this is the car I'm going to get as soon as I get my license. Write this down." It was a '61 Plymouth Valiant." Her love affair with cars had only just begun.
"My first car was a 1970 Satellite that was Vitamin C orange with a 383 cu.in. engine -- a 2-door hardtop when hardtops were really hardtops. It had a lot of performance, and you could see me coming from a good distance. I put 100,000 miles (161,000 km) on that car, and it took me every place I wanted to go."
Although that particular Satellite is long gone, Chrysler still is taking her places.
Ms. Frey sees "her current role as a coordinator and consensus builder, the person who tries to keep ambitious people and clashing egos on one path.
"I'm kind of a tracker, a juggler, a troubleshooter, a conflict-resolver and general ankle-biter," she says in describing her job.
She takes these roles seriously, however, and seizes every opportunity to apply her academic marketing theories. Compared with the typical 750- to 1,000-member platform team, the Prowler team runs much leaner, at about 75, leaving it up to her to negotiate the channels of communications and maximize efficiency.
"I've got to find short cuts, streamline administratively and make the best use of the corporate systems that are designed to meet the needs of huge programs," she says.
Asked if being a woman in a male-dominated industry affects her decisions, she replies: "I think I bring a different perspective to the team, but I think it's more because of my background than it is because of my gender. Challenging traditional thinking and challenging traditional bureaucracies is kind of what I do. That's the perspective I bring that is not based on gender; it's based on my training and educational background."
Ms. Frey finds no issue between her gender and her job, and Mr. Neuhauser would probably agree. "She's not in the business for the business; she's in it for the cars," he says.
Either way, Chrysler executives' persistent pursuit of Ms. Frey underscores their confidence in her ability. After all, she has spent a lifetime engaged with cars, albeit in a nonprofessional capacity until recently.
Ms. Frey even centers her vacations around the racing season. And much of her free time is spent working on her own hobby cars: her Challenger and a recently acquired 1966 Corvette she shares with her husband, Dan Hardin, also a Chrysler employee.
One might wonder, with so much of her life devoted to the pursuit of automotive interests, if 10W40 runs in her veins. Perhaps, but Mr. Neuhauser is convinced of one thing: "She should have been an engineer," he says.
Christine Cortez, Chrysler Corp. finance director-sales and marketing,is acutely aware that women play a crucial role in the automotive industry--one that's continually evolving. Ms. Cortez main responsibilities include directing finance support for the vehicle pricing process and analysis of advertising and marketing costs.
But she also finds time to participate in extra0curricular activities. For example, she helped establish the finance organization's mentoring program that originally offered career planning and exposure targeted at candidates from diverse groups, particularly women.
The program's focus, however, shifted from gender-specific mentoring to include everyone. "Part of it is teaching our organization to work with the differences and appreciate and value them," she explains, "and we came to realize that our mentoring program would be more solid if we opened it up to everyone." Ms. Cortez emphasizes that women's roles in the industry have been re-examined as well. In her opinion, the inclusion of women on platform teams, for example, is not a matter of tokenism.
She recounts that a few years ago she received a call from a panicked minivan team that had lost its only female representative. They sought her help in finding potential female candidates to replace her. "They found themselves an all-male group, and their demographics say that half their buyers are females," she observes.
Ms. Cortez considers such a targeted addition a business imperative. "They looked at their product, they looked at their market, and said, `Oops, we don't matched up with our market well right now."
Other prominent Chrysler women:
Martha Wallace, advance manufacturing engineering executive. Her current responsibilities include launch planning for the St. Louis North Assembly Plant and support for material planning. Ms. Wallace also was senior advisor for the Women's Advisor Committee on the Automotive Market from 1993 to 1995. She joined Chrysler in 1988.
Christine MacKenzie, manager-corporate advertising. Her main responsibilities are for all corporate and minority advertising, interactive and specialty marketing programs. Ms. MacKenzie received her MBA from the University of Walkato, New Zealand, in 1976 and joined Chrysler in 1981.