Retiring VP Welburn Retooled GM Design

GM Chairman and CEO Barra says Welburn elevated GM design to “among the most-respected and sought-after organizations in the industry.”

James M. Amend, Senior Editor

April 7, 2016

4 Min Read
GM Design VP Welburn retires effective July 1
GM Design VP Welburn retires effective July 1.

General Motors Vice President and global design chief Ed Welburn will retire effective July 1, capping a 44-year career at the automaker and 11 years as head of its worldwide styling studios.

Michael Simcoe, vice president of GM International Design and a 33-year veteran of the automaker, will take over for Welburn and begin the transition May 1. Simcoe came up through GM Holden in Australia and is known for applying design excellence and creativity to each of GM’s brands, the automaker says.

GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra says Welburn elevated GM design to “among the most-respected and sought-after organizations in the industry.

“He nurtured a creative, inclusive and customer-focused culture among our designers that has strengthened our global brands,” she says in a statement ahead of Welburn’s announcement to GM’s design staff today.

Welburn, 65, took the reins of GM global design in 2005 as its sixth leader and the first African-American to do so, following Wayne Cherry into the position. Soft-spoken publicly, but sources say more direct internally, he is credited with integrating the automaker’s disparate design stations around the world into one cohesive unit of 2,500 men and women in seven countries working together on concept and production cars, trucks and utility vehicles.

But he has made more subtle, but equally impactful, contributions as a top GM executive. Alongside former GM product boss Bob Lutz, Welburn helped elevate GM design from a largely service-based organization to a key player in future-product decisions. Welburn’s election at the time to GM’s North American Strategy Board underscored GM design’s new role.

“There was not an understanding of the importance of design,” Welburn told WardsAuto in a 2009 interview. “And that was true not just for GM and the auto industry, but for other industries.”

Welburn also saw early in his tenure how GM regions would manage elements of the important Chevrolet brand independently, such as slight variations in the color and shape of its famous bow-tie logo. Arriving at a common logo was seen as a key building block for the global expansion playing out at Chevrolet.

He also accelerated the use of computer-aided design at GM, slashing the time and cost of fashioning highly detailed interior and exterior parts. However, he has preserved some of the old-school approaches, such as full-scale clay modeling.

“Every push to get rid of clay was done by people who don’t design cars,” Welburn told WardsAuto. “Clay gives you emotion.”

Articulate, approachable and even-keeled, Welburn also served as a face for the company during its controversial taxpayer-bailout and bankruptcy in 2009. When influential U.S. lawmakers such as Sen. Bob Corker visited auto shows in Detroit and Washington during that time, it was Welburn guiding them through the GM displays and coolly answering questions from the throng of journalists on their heels.

And then there is his well-documented path to GM. Dreaming of becoming a GM designer as a child, he wrote to the automaker from his Philadelphia home in 1961 asking how to make it happen. GM’s reply sent him on a path to Howard University’s College of Fine Arts, graduating with a BFA in 1972. He joined GM that year as an associate designer and in 1973 was assigned to the Buick studios in Warren, MI.

​Welburn often cites that letter as one reason he remains such a champion of mentoring young talent, a dedication that has earned him numerous recognitions from peers and organizations outside of the industry.

Earlier this year, GM recognized Welburn’s contribution to the company and communities by dedicating the Center for African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts in his name. The dedication gala came after the opening day of the Detroit auto show, and Barra told journalists and senior leadership at the automaker of Welburn’s knack for identifying talent and “generously coaching and mentoring young designers.”

Just last month, Welburn reportedly took a break from the busy New York auto show to speak with local high school students about how access to transportation varies greatly around the world and how that leads him to put as much importance on a racy Chevy Corvette for the U.S. as a stripped-down Tavera utility in India.

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