Gary Cowger, former president of GM who spent over four decades at the company, died last Friday, February 17th, 2023 after a two-year struggle against cancer. Born on April 18th, 1947, he was 75 years old at the time of his death.
Interest in automobiles led Cowger to become a co-op student at General Motors Institute (GMI) in Kansas City during 1967. His time there saw him carrying out tasks such as hanging doors or molding seats at the original Fairfax assembly plant, which was replaced by the current GM Fairfax plant in 1987.
Gary Cowger earned his bachelor’s degree from GMI in 1970, followed by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology management degree in 1978. This educational background together with his energy and knowledge provided a springboard in managerial positions at several of The General’s plants between 1979 and 1987.
During his stint as a plant manager at the Lordstown, Ohio facility, Gary Cowger made his mark through successful negotiations with the United Auto Workers (UAW). His willingness to communicate on a regular basis reduced friction between the union and management.
1994 saw Gary Cowger take over as the president of GM’s branch in Mexico. Remaining there for four years, he proved himself by doubling the market share of GM vehicles, making it the premier automaker in Mexico. Sent to Germany in 1998, he was recalled almost immediately to broker an agreement following a major strike in Flint, Michigan. At this point, he picked one of his executive assistants, future GM CEO Mary Barra, to serve as communications lead.
Gary Cowger mentored Barra through about ten years of his later career at GM. He became president of GM North America in 2001 and continued in that post until 2005. In that year, with GM struggling financially and its shares trading at their lowest point in the previous 10 years, CEO Rick Wagoner relieved Cowger of his position as president and assumed direct control of GM North America himself.
Wagoner reassigned Gary Cowger to his area of proven expertise, chief of global labor relations and manufacturing. Before his retirement from GM in 2009, the same year Wagoner resigned, Cowger helped pave the way for the “new GM” that emerged after The General’s 2009 bankruptcy by negotiating important deals with the UAW.
After Gary Cowger passed away at his home in Plano, Texas, Mary Barra issued a statement expressing her sadness at his passing, describing him as a mentor and an influential leader.