Lessuise: After 30 Years at Ford, New Dean Ready for Academia

Gary Lessuise got his MBA from UW-Madison in 1972, but he always dreamed of coming back.

Lessuise, 58, went to work for Ford Motor Company and stayed for more than three decades.

On Sept. 6, he returned to his alma mater as assistant dean for master’s degree programs.

“I’ve been fond of this school ever since I set foot here in the 1960s, so this is a wonderful opportunity,” said Lessuise. “I hope I can make a difference.”

Dean Michael Knetter lauded Lessuise’s business world “skills and experience” in choosing him for the post.

“Gary’s talents are an especially good fit,” he said. “I am excited that he is coming on board in this important position for our master’s programs.”

During his long tenure with Ford, which took him to Latin America for a two-year stint as the company’s Brazilian marketing manager, he mentored UW-Madison students and was Ford’s lead recruiter at the school for 15 years. He also served on the dean’s advisory board from 2000 to 2004.

Lessuise, who got his undergraduate degree from UW-Madison, takes over as the business school is entering the second year of its revamped MBA program that combines general MBA skills with highly focused education in 13 areas of specialization.

WisBusiness Editor Brian Clark interviewed Lesuisse recently at the business school’s Fluno Center.

Brian E. Clark: What do you bring to the business school?

Gary Lessuise: I’m coming in with a blank slate when it comes to academia. I’ve never worked in this environment. I’ve never taught a class. This is kind of like going from Detroit to Brazil. It’s a different culture and a different language. I’m in the process of learning acronyms now. I’m like a dry sponge and I’m learning as fast as I can.

But I think I have a pretty good understanding of how a successful business is run. I also understand the value of people and their importance in making in whatever enterprise you’re involved in more successful.

I also think I’m a good communicator and I’m very big on what I call stakeholder philosophy. If you are going to be touched by a decision I make, then I believe you have earned a place at the table.

You’ve earned the right to have input and depending on the circumstance, you may have the right to be part of the decision-making process. Not always, though.

In working with the Ford dealer association’s, the company reserved the right to make the decision. But it was very wise on our part to gather the opinions of everyone involved rather than acting unilaterally. Ultimately, we’d make better decisions because we did it that way.

Sometimes we have to relearn that process.

Clark: Do you think business schools are teaching that?

Lessuise: I don’t know. That’s a good question. Effective communication is something that we tend to pay a lot of lip service to. But I don’t know how well we really communicate with each other. A lot of us, myself included, spend a lot more time pitching than we do catching.

We’re not good active listeners. And that’s where you learn because the answer is with people and the marketplace. That is where you really learn.

Clark: In your time at Ford, did you find MBAs from Wisconsin and other universities well prepared?

Lessuise: Generally yes. They were bright and good team players. But a lot depends on the individual. It’s like anything else. Some people can come through the same program and be very different. Just like two children raised in the same family. If a person has earned an MBA, they’ve proved they can do the work because they have the degree. Then it’s a question of how you channel that and help them develop based on the specific focus of whatever your business.

Over 15 years, my team probably hired 15 people from Wisconsin and I’m proud of our choices. Wisconsin is one of the top schools that Ford goes to because of the wonderful experience we’ve had with the program and how they have been successful with the company.

It’s been a good match for both recruiting and financial support. Ford also recruits heavily from the College of Engineering at UW-Madison.

Clark: You’re a native of Wisconsin?

Lessuise: I’m from Green Bay. My wife, Vicky, and I met there as freshmen in high school. She’s put up with me for a long time. Coming back to Madison is a homecoming for her too. She still has a lot of family in Wisconsin.

Clark: How do you recall your student days at UW-Madison?

Lessuise: They were great. It was in the late ’60s and early ’70s – a long time ago. I finished my undergraduate work in 1970 and the job market was really tough.

I’d worked my way through school and I had a good job here running an apartment building and had most of my rent defrayed. So I kept right on going and got my MBA. A week after I graduated my wife and I got married.

Clark: Did you go right to work for Ford?

Lessuise: No, I took two months off. We decided that we would take visit every state west of the Mississippi. We had Vicky’s convertible and my tent. That was about it. And her credit card. God bless her credit card.

I’d interviewed at Ford and a couple of other companies. I was fortunate to have a number of offers. We took the summer off and went then I went to work at the end of August in 1972. Now here we are, 33 years later.

Clark: What did you do during your tenure with Ford?

Lessuise: I was in 14 different locations and had 23 different positions, starting as a trainee in Dallas. With each promotion, usually there was a physical move. This is our 15th move since we’ve been married. We were even in Brazil for a couple of years in the mid to late ’90s. I went there as sales manager for Ford of Brazil. I did that for a year and then I became the general marketing manager for Ford of Brazil.

Clark: What was your last job at Ford?

Lessuise: I was executive director of dealer relations for Lincoln Mercury. That means I worked directly with our dealer council on all aspects of business, any issues that they had or any initiatives that we were thinking of bringing forth. It was an elected group from 17 regions, with two from each region.

Clark: How has the auto industry changed since you joined Ford?

Lessuise: The competitive atmosphere is just unbelievable now. When I started in the early ’70s, it was Chrysler, GM, Ford, Toyota a little and VW with the Beetle and the bus. Now you have upwards of 400 nameplates out in the marketplace. The competition is horrendous.

Clark: What was Ford’s market share then?

Lessuise: It was about 25 percent and that has deteriorated over the years. There is only 100 percent of the market and as more people come in, it gets nibbled away at from the top, middle and bottom. Now it is 18 percent.

Clark: In southern Wisconsin, a big concern is that GM will close its plant in Janesville. GM has invested $175 million there to retool for a new generation of SUVs, but people are still worried. Your thoughts?

Lessuise: I don’t think GM’s issues are any different than Ford from a domestic standpoint. There is a tremendous amount of excess capacity in the industry. The big issue is how do you address that.

If you are capacitized for 25 percent of the market and you are less than 20 percent and are going down every year, you have to take plants down.

Ford has done more of that than GM. But that’s a critical issue because the margins are slim. You couple that with all the incentives since 911 and the profit margins are even smaller.

Clark: Do you think that the auto makers and unions will have to come to some agreement that trims pensions and health care benefits?

Lessuise: Absolutely. I think there will have to be some major adjustments from the union side. We can all hold our ground and have 100 percent of nothing. Or we can figure out how we will make this a viable business equation given the market environment that we find ourselves in.

There are a lot of competitors out there who don’t have the legacy costs of Ford, GM and Chrysler to some extent. It is an uneven playing field and somehow the cost factors are going to have to get in line.

I think this will be a very interesting period between now and ’07 when contracts are redone. You are talking billions and billions of dollars that come right off the top. But I have to be careful, because as a retiree, I’m one of those guys contributing.

You have to adjust when things change. When I came into this business, it was domestic and now it is a global neighborhood.

Clark: Are their parallels here to the airline industry?

Lessuise: Yes, you can draw some parallels with costs, inability to increase revenues, tight margins and rising costs. There are huge legacy costs and what is being done with pensions to people who have worked there for 20 or 30 years is alarming. (When United defaulted on its pension plan in May and turned it over to the government’s Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp., annual payments to retirees were limited to $44,000 a year. That is far lower than many employees, particularly pilots, were expecting.)

I hope the auto industry can build a better model than what we airline employee’s pensions. But life will be what it will be.

Clark: How did you choose to come to back to Madison and become an assistant dean for the graduate school?

Lessuise: I’ve been enamored with this town ever since I set foot on the campus more than three decades ago. I had the pleasure of being on the dean’s advisory board for a number of years.

Dean Knetter sent out a note earlier this year about the increases in ranking that Wisconsin Business School has had. He just wanted to keep all the board members apprised. His last paragraph noted that this position was open and that we should notify anyone who was interested. So a little bell went off in my head.

I’d also recruited here for 15 years. I sent Mike note back, congratulating him for the rankings and said I’d be interested and that started the dialogue. One thing lead to another and here we are.

So my wife and I took July and August off again. I started Sept. 6. I was ready to go. I’m not the kind of guy to sit around. I was starting to get bored.

Actually, doing something like this has been on my mind for a long time because I thought it would be fulfilling. I’d dreamed about coming back to this university. I’m at a point in my life where I can do things I want to do.

It’s nice to contribute to this school and students. That’s what I will try to do. I think this will be very stimulating. I’m looking forward to a lot of interesting conversations. Right now, though, I’m doing a lot of listening. I want to support the vision of the school.