Kim Williams, 43
Calsonic Kansei North America
What attracted you to the auto industry? We lived in Illinois when I was a kid, where my father worked for Caterpillar, and he got laid off. So he used to fix cars for people. I was always helping him in the shop, getting him the right wrench and watching. I always wanted to be around cars.
First automotive job: I went to work on the second shift for SW Manufacturing in Smithville, Tenn., in 1994, about six weeks before I graduated from college. We made seat tracks and window regulators for Mitsubishi and Toyota, and I was a quality engineer.
Big break: I was hired by the Saturn plant in Spring Hill [Tenn.] as a quality engineer in powertrain. I received wonderful training from Saturn over the course of 14 years. I learned engine assembly, casting and machining and also service engineering in recalls. It was a great training ground.
What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? There have been a couple. The first is the challenge of finding skilled people who are interested in the automotive industry. It's an ongoing challenge to attract that top talent, in engineering, logistics, supply chain management, with the passion to do this work. The other challenge is growing in a work culture that is not always accustomed to seeing women in nontraditional roles. Some of this is still pretty new for my company. I was the first female vice president for my company globally. I'm passionate about what I'm doing, but sometimes I have to make sure I inspire confidence and set the right example and don't mess things up for all the others to come later.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career? My dad and my uncles influenced me because they never treated me any differently as a girl. My uncle taught me how to double-clutch the tractor when I was 8 and we were bailing hay. That kind of training allowed me to grow up believing I could do anything.
As I worked in the auto industry, I had a lot of people who influenced me. Susan Brennan, who ran U.S. manufacturing for Nissan, gave me great advice and helped me see how to operate as the only female executive in the room.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? We've got to help them understand all the different functions that exist in the auto industry, that it's not just a heavy-lifting job on an assembly line. And on the engineering and manufacturing sides, we need to make sure they understand that this isn't a dark and dingy environment. It's not dirty and hot. We're talking about new technologies that are about robotics and programming, in clean environments that are climate controlled. I've challenged our sales and marketing people and our HR people to come up with some displays to get the message out.
Tell us about your family. I'm married to my grammar school sweetheart. I met him when I moved to Tennessee 30 years ago and we've been married 21 years. I have three children - two daughters at Tennessee Tech, and my son is almost 10. We live on a farm far out in the country. We have cows. My parents live about a half-mile down the road from us, and my in-laws live across the road from our farm.
I'm an only child and a career person, and my parents have always helped me with my children. I wouldn't have the career I have today without their help.
What's your favorite weekend activity? I live simply. I like being at home. My husband loves to smoke meats, so he will smoke a ham or ribs or baloney, and we'll go visit my parents and in-laws and sit around with them. And then Sunday is church, and maybe a little bit of horse riding or riding our four-wheelers.
Name one thing about yourself that most people don't know. I'm extremely tender-hearted. I don't think anyone around here would think that about me.
If I had to do it all over again, I'd . be a pharmacist. I love dealing with people and working with people, and there is still math and science involved. One of my daughters is now studying that at college, and I'm a little jealous.
What advice would you give your child? Be who you are. Never be ashamed to be exactly who you are. It wasn't so normal for me to study engineering technology in college.
I was the only female in those classes. I learned how to pour metal, how to pack sand, how to weld, how to run a lathe, how to mill, how to build a vice. But I never thought it was weird.
I just wanted to do it. Be proud of who you are and don't let anybody sway you.
Best advice you've ever gotten? My grandfather worked for Caterpillar as a technician all his career. When I graduated from college, he said, "Can I give you some advice now that you're going to be an engineer? When you go to work, the best thing you can do is listen to that operator. They will tell you every time what's going on and how to solve that problem, but you have no idea how many of those white collars never talk to them. You'll be successful if you listen to the people running the parts or running the line." I've carried that with me throughout my career. We had an issue just last week in Mississippi, and the first question I asked is "Have we talked to the operators yet?"