John Lawler ‘88 believes that most people see the automotive industry as antiquated or something associated with “smokestacks.” But he calls it a “global growth industry,” and he has seen it worldwide on a firsthand basis.
Throughout Lawler’s business career in the U.S., Japan, Germany and most recently as Chairman and CEO of Ford Motor China, he believes his liberal arts education at Knox has made all the difference.
“I have an MBA [from the University of Iowa], but I find that what benefits me the most is everything I learned at Knox,” Lawler told The Knox Student in a phone interview. “The Knox education prepares you extremely well for the world, because it teaches you how to learn [and] look at things from different perspectives … ”
Lawler, 46, who majored in economics at Knox, was promoted to his new position with Ford in December 2012. Since receiving his graduate degree in 1990, Lawler has spent the last 23 years with Ford in various capacities and on various continents.
He calls his experiences in China “fascinating.”
“Watching this country and the people evolve … [makes] it an amazing place right now,” Lawler said. “China is the largest … [and] fastest-growing automotive market in the world. There’s a lot going on in this country, and we have a role to play on many different fronts.”
Much of Lawler’s work leading Ford’s China operation involves working directly with Chinese government officials, who Lawler said want to take an active role in “trying to establish and define” the growing industry. This includes setting fuel economy standards, growing local brands and developing vehicles powered by “new energies.”
Lawler’s first international experience was in Japan where he both worked and invested in Mazda, a Japanese automotive manufacturer. This experience showed him how cultural values factor into decisions made in the business world.
“It was a great experience [in Japan] not only from a work standpoint, but from a cultural standpoint, understanding how to assimilate into different cultures and understanding that there’s more than one way of looking at problems.” Lawler said. “Different cultures approach things differently, and it’s really important to understand that.”
Generally, Lawler said he enjoys working in the automotive industry because it is something most people can relate to. In his words, he deals with a “tangible product” that purchasers are passionate about.
“Everybody knows about cars,” he said. “Most likely, if you’re at a party and you meet people who find out that you work for an auto company, they start talking about what they like about the vehicles, what they don’t like. It’s an emotional purchase, and people have a lot to say about it.”
Lawler touts the diversity of his Knox education as much as the diversity in his business experiences.
“That’s the thing about Knox,” he said. “You could be an economics major, but that doesn’t mean that all you’ve taken is econ, and maybe an accounting course, and maybe a marketing course. You tend to diversify. That’s the whole ideal of a liberal arts education.”