Last week I had a chance to hear the stories of two top General Motors executives at a breakfast for media and other community leaders at the Hyatt Regency.
It was part of the Trumpet Awards weekend of activities. The program was called “Cadillac Conversations,” and featured Edward T. Welburn, Jr., the chief designer for the General Motors and Don Butler, the chief marketing officer for Cadillac. Welburn is a 2013 Trumpet Award honoree.
Both had inspiring stories about their climb up the corporate ladder. Welburn is GM’s vice president of global design and is only the sixth person and the first African American to hold the position in the company’s history. Butler, who grew up on a small town in Mississippi, is vice president for marketing at Cadillac and has responsibility for leading product planning, marketing, advertising and promotion for GM’s iconic luxury brand.
As a former executive with a 22-year-career at a major media company (Cox Enterprises) I have a real appreciation for their long-time careers with GM. I especially related to Welburn, who is close to my age.
His accomplishments are very impressive. Welburn has created a network of 10 Design Centers in seven countries. He and his team of over 2,000 men and women are responsible for the design development of every GM concept and production car and truck globally. The Design Centers are located in the United States, Germany, Korea, China, Australia, Brazil and India.
Welburn and his team have recently captured the following honors: “2013 North “North American Car of the Year” for the Cadillac ATS at the recent American International Auto Show in Detroit; the all-new Chevrolet Corvette was named “Best in Show” by both Auto Week magazine and The Detroit News; and the Cadillac ELR won the Eyes on Design Award for “Best Production Vehicle Design.”
Welburn’s personal story was inspiring. He said his kids call it corny. They’re wrong. It is inspiring. He said it was love at first sight when he went to an auto show as a kid of 8 years old in Philadelphia. “When I grow up, I want to design cars for that company,” he said during the breakfast conversation. “At 11, I wrote a letter (to GM) asking them what I need to do, what courses I needed to take in high school and college in order to design cars.” GM responded, and after completing his studies at Howard University, he joined GM in 1972 and worked his way up.
In addition to his design expertise, Welburn is also a member of GM’s executive operations committee, which oversees activities for the entire company. Translation: this means he’s the highest ranking African American in the company. He also is currently GM’s key executive to Howard University, where he was named 2004 Alumni of the Year. In 1978, the GM Foundation, of which Welburn is a board member, established a yearly grant award to Howard. Since then, the GM Foundation has donated more than $1.1 million to Howard.
Welburn’s and Butler’s stories were nicely induced by Jocelyn K. Allen, director of regional, grassroots, and diversity Communications for GM. She asked them both what it meant to them to have these high-ranking positions as African Americans.
“I do not take it lightly,” Welburn said. “Every day I walk into the office and sit at the same desk as the first chief designer…. I know it’s important to talk with designers eye-to-eye around the world….I feel fortunate to work for a company that values design.”
Butler said he feels a “special responsibility as a black man leading marketing for Cadillac…. Not as a burden, but it’s an amazing testament to the company and to my faith in what God has done.”
Both agreed that they feel a responsibility to mentor young people and pass along what they have learned to the next generation.
Makes you want to go out and buy a nice GM car — Cadillac, Chevy or a Buick.