Blue Sky Activity – A conversation with Tom Pilette

It’s all about dynamics

Tom Pilette was 29 or 30 when he joined Magna. He himself is not so certain off the cuff when we meet him for our interview in mid-October. But he can very well recall his first meeting Don Walker back then. Walker, Magna’s current CEO, sat next to Tom Pilette at a team-building event in May 1994. He asked the new recruit what he liked about Magna.
At the time Pilette had only been with the company for a few weeks. He had left his previous employer, the Ford Motor Company, due to a lack of prospects.
“Magna is a great, dynamic company”, Tom reckoned, not knowing, that many years later he would have to put his own hypothesis to the test by supporting the Canadian automotive supplier in a phase of new beginnings.

At the time we spoke, Pilette had been with Magna for twenty-three years and officiated as Vice President Product and Process Development. The company addressed a number of difficult challenges in the last few years during which time Magna had to reinvent itself in order to remain unassailable for start-ups and disruptors. One primary, if not the most important, guiding principle during this period of change is exactly the quality that fascinated Tom Pilette twenty-three years previously: Magna puts dynamism into practice.

At the time of globalization, the keystone of Magna's corporate philosophy was decentralization. At the same time, the various corporate divisions were supposed to stay connected without a centralized structure. Magna developed into a behemoth of companies as centralization forced partition. The Canadians still succeeded by focusing on the long-term – however, not on the market of the future but on the needs that their customers might have in such a future. “What might our customer want in 2025, and in 2030?” This development was accompanied by Magna adopting a view for the whole picture, especially in car production. It was no longer about understanding and designing individual applications, Tom told us, but about appreciating the car as a large single unit. The future was not about solving problems, but about offering services and solutions that preempt problems before they arise.

Are we in a good way if we stay here? Or what do we have to do in order to meet that objective in 2025 and 2030?

The ability to listen closely to what the customer was saying became the natural thing to do. This is also probably why Tom Pilette doesn’t talk about customers or clients – he calls business contacts simply partners. He prefers partnerships with a mutual appreciations of each other’s needs. This might seem to be a pipe dream to a normal businessman, but Magna has learned to create visions in order to be prepared for the future. However, as with any partnership, it is not just the quest for common goals that is needed, but also the capability of admitting one’s own failures. This is how Pilette appreciates the idea of abandoning unpromising projects – and to communicate openly about it.
Openness thus became the most important character trait of a Magna team member. It is a creed that Magna upholds, both internally and externally.

But isn't all this just wishful thinking?

Tom admitted that changes don't become reality overnight at Magna, either. “15 years ago we believed,” Pilette explained to us, “and we began to act accordingly ten years ago. But it's only in the last five years or so that it has become a natural process for the company.” Even though Tom Pilette still calls these efforts “blue-sky activities”, Magna is nowadays often mentioned with innovative companies like Google and Apple in the same breath. Thinking with a focus on the future seems to have caught on.

“Magna supports innovative thinkers wherever we can find them. We foster open collaboration and healthy competition.” This is the promise on the corporate website. Talking with Tom Pilette, it became clear that this promise is not simply an empty phrase. Under his lead, Magna cooperated with universities, with students, with the potential disruptors of tomorrow. He wants to help them to develop products, to provide advice and perhaps provide the decisive spark to discover a new material that will shape the market of the future. However, neither he nor Magna wishes to produce this material. Pilette wants to leave that job to the universities. Magna is thus acting increasingly like the early OEMs – an inevitable step in Tom Pilette’s view in order to remain up to date and close to producers. He can appreciate corporate culture where visions are upheld and where “What if” is a question that leads to the goal.

Tom gave us an example, a case that he had already discussed with Trinseo’s Jerry Mazur prior to our interview. His what-if scenario was concerned with fusing bon with propylene and polyamide, “Friction-based carbon fiber has an excellent aspect ratio. We’ve found that if we can take 5% of that material to reinforce propylene and polyamide and pane it– and we only need 5% to 7.5% of it to change from a thermo-set to a thermo-plastic – it could replace every horizontal panel on a car.” Achieving Tom’s vision would make the use of aluminum in car construction completely redundant; but experiments have so far only delivered second-rate results at best. However, although Tom Pilette advocates declaring futile efforts to have failed, this case is a totally different matter. “Someone’s going to figure out how to do that. And when they do, it’s going to change the game,” he said, brimming over with enthusiasm for his work.

If there are people with a real passion for cars in their blood, then Tom Pilette is surely one of them. His father worked as an engineer for GM – from the start of his career to his sudden death at the age of 44. Pilette senior played a major role in the development of the first plastic bumper systems and passed this weakness on to his son. The Pilette brothers grew up virtually in the board room at Pontiac. That was where Tom, at the tender age of four, met John DeLorean, who at the time worked there as Chief Engineer. This was the moment that gave birth to his own involvement.

So we started an open innovations network. And that’s really what has changed ourculture.

It seems to have become more important for Magna to participate in a development than to drive the development themselves.  They are building a network in order to create innovations together instead of having a tough time trying to lead innovation. There is no place for secrets in this strategy. This is the reason why trailblazers Google and Facebook prefer open-plan offices and why crowdfunding has grown increasingly popular and successful. Openness, boundlessness, interdisciplinary sharing are the qualities of high-flying companies. Tom Pilette returned to the much discussed topic of honesty. “Culturally we limit people,” Pilette admitted, but the old proverb is not quoted for nothing: Where there's a will there’s a way.

We parted with a totally unexpected confession from Tom. “I’m so passionate about the car. But I don’t drive what I like. I live on a farm. I drive a pickup truck.”