By AMEERAH CETAWAYO, The Daily News, email@example.com
Friday, March 7, 2008 10:17 PM CST
Alex Shuler flew in from New York to pay homage to a mentor - one of hundreds who attended the dinner for Wil Cooksey, retiring general manager of the General Motors Bowling Green Assembly Plant.
“He actually recruited me while I was in college at Tennessee State,” the 26-year-old Shuler said.
He remembers the day he met Cooksey. He drove in a Corvette, had a smooth demeanor and was well-dressed - Shuler said he was impressed that day.
“You wanted to be like him,” Shuler said.
As a sophomore at Tennessee State University in Nashville in 2002, Shuler said he interviewed with Cooksey for an intern position and later interned at the Corvette Plant in the summers of 2002 and 2004.
“I received a lot of guidance from Wil,” Shuler said. “He is plant manager of the Bowling Green plant, but the word ‘manager’ doesn’t justify the man. He’s a leader. His guidance has gotten me to where I am today.”
Shuler was hired full-time with GM in 2004 as an associate manufacturing engineer. Now a process engineer for the GM Powertrain plant in western New York, Shuler said he stands on the shoulders of giants.
“Wil is one of my giants,” Shuler said.
The crowd was full of people from Kentucky, Detroit, Virginia, Texas, New York and other places Cooksey has affected in some form or fashion since February 1993, when he moved to Bowling Green after serving in Fairfax, Doraville and St. Louis assembly plants, replacing then general manager Paul Schnoes.
Under Cooksey’s leadership, the plant saw $30 million in changes before the Corvette C5 was launched. A new cleaning room apparatus and auto storage retrieval system decreased painting defects and cut down the time it took to fix cars with paint problems. Cooksey implemented the concepts of “lean manufacturing” in 1994 to revamp workplace standards - eliminating waste, keeping costs in line and implementing other values. He’s also credited with establishing a parking lot for non-GM vehicles in the back of the plant, sending a message of how important it is to support the company that pays you.
To Tom Wallace, GM’s vehicle line executive for performance products, Cooksey’s influence on the Corvette transcended his role as general manager. Those in GM’s Detroit corporate headquarters have high regard for the Fort Worth, Texas, native who began his career as an assistant professor in industrial engineering at General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich., later rising through the ranks of several GM facilities.
“He just loves Corvettes and he loves the people who buy Corvettes,” Wallace said, adding that Cooksey played a part in helping lead and assist engineers in Detroit with styles and designs for the Corvette. “We’re going to miss him.”
The plaudits also came from local people, some of them with no connection to GM or Corvettes.
“He’s just an inspiration - not only for black kids, but for kids from single-parent households, poor kids, any kid who wants to make it in life,” said Abraham Williams, director of the Housing Authority of Bowling Green. “Somebody has got to open the door for you, and Wil has opened the door for so many people.”
Cooksey’s resonance as a leader is found in his persona, his respect for customers, employees, management, and Bowling Green’s United Auto Workers Union 2164, which represents a majority of the plant’s 1,200 workers, according to Mike Yager, a leader for Effingham, Ill.-based Mid America Motorworks.
“When I think of a leader I think of Wil Cooksey,” Yager said. “Leaders inspire, lead and take people to the best they can be.”
“He always has time to speak with customers,” Yager added. “That’s unusual.”
Cooksey said he was “touched” that so many people attended his dinner in spite of Friday night’s dangerous weather conditions. When he looks back over the years, he feels a sense of pride knowing that he went into many colleges like Tennessee State and elsewhere, telling students “once upon a time, I was just like you” and that they could succeed in life as he had.
“I always told them be the best at what you can - that determines the chances of you getting what you want,” Cooksey said.
Being honored Friday night was “an awesome experience,” he said, with his wife, Elizabeth, a professor at Western Kentucky University, by his side. Cooksey also has two children, David and Crissy, and three grandchildren, J.D., Katrina and Kieara.
“It makes me feel like everything I’ve been doing is really appreciated
and it wasn’t for naught,” Cooksey said.