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And in 1994 she made the big move to GM, starting as a manufacturing engineer.

Always learning

Restless minds are never satisfied with the status quo. As might be expected, Boler-Davis had her hands full learning a new industry, but characteristically, she also went back to school, completing a Master of Science program in the management of technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1998. She had already begun impressing her managers at GM, and as her official biography says, when she “expressed interest in an assignment inside a GM plant,” she “took on a role [in which] she was responsible for production, build, quality, training and safety of her people in the plants high-paced general assembly area.”

If that sounds like a big challenge for a young engineer, read on.

“Within six months, Boler-Davis caught the eye of plant leadership,” GM says, and she got promoted to utility supervisor, a role usually saved for the most seasoned of plant employees. She turned that group around in six months, and after two and a half years in that plant, Boler-Davis had moved up again, to plant planner, “responsible for all planning activities, implementing changes and working with program teams on product launches.”

Product launches? How carmaker beat the pack

Ahem. It may be remembered that product launches are the “big sha-boom” in the auto industry. Going all the way back to the early history of General Motors, when the company took over the Chevrolet brothers’ auto plants and introduced rivals to Henry Ford’s Model T — with buyers able to choose what color car they wanted to take home and put an end to the dominance of Ford products that were “any color as long as it’s black” — bringing out new products has been the way automakers everywhere stay on top in consumers’ minds.

Thus, it is no coincidence that the Detroit Auto Show, in the city where the U.S. Big Three are headquartered, is where automakers from around the world show up to show off the products of their design and manufacturing prowess.

And here was Alicia Boler-Davis, not yet 40 years old, involved in launching the car models that meant profits or (shudder) market losses for General Motors.

Let’s put this another way. In her first decade working at the automaker whose budgets, supply contracts, employment rosters and wage outputs deeply affect America’s economy, Alicia Boler-Davis had already marked herself as a person of significance. A leader.

Running on the fast track

Soon, Boler-Davis got promoted again, to superintendant of the materials department, quality director for the Detroit/ Hamtramck plant and general assembly area manager. “During her time” there, GM drily states, the plant won the J.D. Power Silver Plant Award for making cars with the second-lowest problem reports per 100 units produced in North America.

Didn’t we just say that women of color were changing the face of American industry?

GM transferred Boler-Davis, along with her husband and children, to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 2004, 10 years after first hiring her. There, she managed Fort Wayne Assembly’s body shop and then its paint shop, and won plaudits for driving “significant” improvements in quality and cost performance.

Two years later, Boler-Davis was back in Michigan, where she became assistant plant manager at Pontiac Assembly Center, overseeing operations for a plant running two shifts to make light-duty and heavy-duty pickup trucks. For GM, Boler-Davis was managing a $400 million annual operating budget, directing the activities of teams in production, the supply chain and quality control.

Driving, driving

Then GM gave Boler-Davis an even more critical post: plant manager at Arlington Assembly. The first African-American woman ever named plant manager, Boler-Davis provided strategic planning, direction and operational leadership for the automaker’s most profitable assembly plant. With a near $400 million operating budget there and 2,700 employees, Boler-Davis boosted efficiency by 12 percent. She also pumped up product launches, bringing out new sport-utility vehicles ahead of GM’s schedule.

Is anyone still talking about small percentages of women of color in engineering?

Next, Boler-Davis stepped up to run two assembly plants and one stamping plant in Lansing, Michigan. There, she led a multi-disciplinary staff of 3,750 employees responsible for producing 300,000 vehicles a year, this time with a $600 million annual budget. And just to keep busy, on Fridays, when the Lansing assembly works were not running, Boler- Davis dropped in on the stamping plant, GM says, “where she rotated performing line jobs in the facility, from loading parts [to] inspecting part quality. This is an example of her hands-on approach, commitment to learning and desire to connect with employees.”

Too bad the “Undercover Boss” program staff didn’t see her then.



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