Exclusive Interview with Ralph Gilles SRT CEO & Chrysler Global Design Chief (Detroit is back Series) pt 2


“Hes gonna wear me out. Im gonna need a couch hereItd be easier if you just plugged into my head and sucked it all out.”  

Ralph Gilles

Here is the second part of our extensive interview with Ralph, I was honored for his time and we covered so much on so many aspects of what has happened at Chrysler, LLC with products, marketing strategy, engineering, vision and the transition to integrating with the great team at Fiat. We also spoke about his historic role in the transition as CEO of Dodge. We go from horsepower to hip-hop and the interview was so fascinating I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 


OI: Now obviously with the SRT brand, the Bumble Bee editions, 470 horsepower, 6.4 – so talk about…how you now build upon that like youve got the fuel efficiency which is moving the volume, getting people in the dealership, sub-$30,000 price point but then now youre able to say “Here is that real muscle.” 


RG: So here we are today at Moparpalooza so youre seeing firsthand what passion can equal. A lot of SRTs here but a lot of other Mopar products here and Chrysler Group products. You know we have Jeeps. We have Chryslers, a few Rams as well and obviously some SRTs so I think you know passion even back in the day. In the 70s people thought – early 70’s – passion would go away. Everyone was worried about getting the cars as small as possible, fuel-efficient but were finding technology has enabled it now so you can have 470 horsepower and still get 21-23-24 miles per gallon so the magic is finding a way to kind of have both coexist right now so – and still have fun. And we built cars that are passionate, one of the few – like Charger to me, an SRT Charger has no competition. I cant think of another car in its class to compare it to. I really cant. So we offer something very unique that solves a problem for someone whos an enthusiast, has a family, likes to go fast, wants something different and wants it bright yellow and we make that. So I think its really – thats one of the things I love about this company is we have these delicious brands and we can do all of this great stuff. The Jeep brand is a great example of how much fun you can have with a vehicle and I see them all the time with the doors off, with the roof off, people loving it. Then you have cars like the Grand Cherokee SRT8 which is kind of the do-all, sports car, super car, SUV, physics-defying machine so its just – for me as a designer its just a pinch-myself situation to work with a company and still make cool cars.


OI: Now even talking about that and the Jeep SRT and even just talking about the Jeep brand and for me its emotional because I remember. I have a family member who actually worked at a Dodge dealership so we knew. I mean when 2008 happened it hit home. And I remember being at the New York Auto Show in 09 and the only vehicle you guys had was that


RG: Grand Cherokee


OI: gold Grand Cherokee and it was like well, this is all Chrysler has in the bin. And everybody was like oh, theyre finished, write em off and Wall Street was like, no were not even – So talk about that particular car, most awarded. You have Nappa leather. You have all sorts of packaging, right. You start out at 26,000 – in the 26,000 range and could go all the way to the SRT8 thats almost like 60, performance, quality, some of the best interiors possible in any luxury SUV. Talk about that. Like talk about that product and using that to kind of re-introduce the whole brand.


RG: I think the Grand Cherokee is an example of whats in a name. I mean the Grand Cherokee name is a great brandWe kind of invented the personal SUV so to speak and of course take a Jeep brand legendary performance and basically as we set off on that project – we said lets not give up on this vehicle. You know the last one was done in a certain way that cost us a lot, you know, and really hurt the name. This time around we said lets put everything we know out in this vehicle so its world-class engineering of the body, suspension, interior so we said, you know, we rolled the dice. Lets go for it. We got a lot of great support Sergio had actually seen that car right after the auto show and loved it. He says lets take it to the next level. The Overland wasnt done yet. There was a few versions of the car. The SRT8 version was not configured yet. So it takes the management team to believe in the possibility. Here youve got this great name. If you put the right stuff in it they will come back and thats exactly whats happening today. We cannot build them fast enough. I mean the Grand Cherokees taken off. Its really successful. Its gotten new people into the brand. Its also gotten people back that had one back in, you know – the late 90s were great. The WJ was a great Grand Cherokee and they came back and theyre discovering how that car is a symbol of how far the companys come. If you remember the things that we make, make us campaign was all about that, saying heres what were capable of when we put our minds to it. So you take that type of execution and you multiply it on every nameplate that we make. Virtually every car in the company has that type of know-how now, that level of – all the things you mentioned, that care and attention to detail. Even the rear – you open the rear compartment of a Grand Cherokee and I remember the meeting, sitting there and staring at the rear compartment just something in the past you used to just throw a carpet at. Now we really think about the layout, how we can make it…so the customer, every time he touches the car, he can feel the passion from the engineering team, the product planners, everybody involved, it comes through in the details of the product so thats the way we go forward. Thats the way were approaching product design now and product execution and then from there on out its just believing whats possible and not giving up on your brand.


OI: So talk about that as the designer, the person thats actually looking at these center stacks, these interiors. Im looking at the gapping, right, especially Grand Cherokee, Durango


RG: Yeah, so I have the pleasure of – I have a very competent design office. I cant do everything, right, so obviously Ive got a great team of people. You know Krause runs the interiors. Ive got one designer for every brand. Ive got Joe Dehner. Ive got Brandon Faurote. Ive got Mark Allen, Tim Anness, a lot of great talent and now theyre focused on each brand so Ive a got a dedicated interior guy, dedicated brand guy and they sit in the staff meetings with the brand heads so Olivier, when he was with Chrysler, my guy sat with him. Now its Mike Manley with Mark Allen so my guys are giving me information first hand, understand what the brand is trying to achieve and also we are able to put in our inputs and kind of together – now the mission is clear, right. So whatever the project is everyone knows what they want to achieve with their segment and talking – alignment – is one of the things Sergio has done a great job is teaching the group how to – we always had energy. There’s no shortage of energy and passion at Chrysler but how do you focus so the way we work now is we set the target, everyones focused. Its like a military kind of thing or Navy Seal. I always compare us to the Navy Seals now. I respect them because Ive never fought in any kind of military but the attitude of a mission and thats how we approach product design and I think, knock-on-wood, that what youre seeing is finally the results coming through.


OI: Now speaking about that and you also mentioned about messaging. Sergio took a big risk, Super Bowl, two years ago – huge risk, right? Now in our purview weve been covering that demographic from the onset. If you look at the census report, you see how demographics are changing but putting Eminem, putting the choir, rightand then youre saying Detroit. It wasnt popular to say okay were bringing this brand back and were gonna have this rap guy, Eminem and were gonna use this as whats gonna bring our brand and then sales are just through the roof and that just propels momentum. I looked at the 200 sales prior, like I looked at the numbers and Im like okay


RG: 600%.


OI: 600%. Im like whatever he paid for that campaign


RG: But its the concept of again like not giving up on your brands, not giving up on your city, not giving up on your people, not giving up on your country. That was the idea behind the quote from Detroit. So I remember Sergio, Saad, Olivier, myself and a lot of the management team members were debating the tagline cause theres so much in that tagline. Theres a lot of intent in the tagline, a lot of innuendos in there and of course the Eminem thing was again, the hot sauce. Heres a guy whos – whod had his share of troubles and has been misunderstood but at the bottom of it Eminem is an incredible mind, an incredible – an inventor of sorts, an against the odds kind of guy, and has a lot in common with us so – plus hes from Detroit and he really believes in Detroit and he actually still lives in the Detroit area and supports his state. So it all just kind of fell together and he of course had to make the final decision whether he wanted to be a part of that or not and he said yes when he saw the bigger picture. It wasnt about the 200. Yes it was. It happened to be the car in the commercial but it was really about the whole movement that was about to happen cause a lot of stuff hadnt really happened yet, right, so it was more about this is where were headed everybody so its up to you to pay attention. If you do youll see what were up to. So Im very proud of the company for taking that risk. I was there with my friends when we saw the commercial for the first time. I had seen it kind of in its rough cut and everyone in the room got it. I didnt have to explain anything.


OI: I mean it was a two-minute spot.


RG: Yeah and everyone was silent


OI: You dont do a two-minute spot at the Super Bowl.


RG: That was also the first time for that so that was ground-breaking on many levels and people, I dont care if youve never had a Chrysler, everyone has seen that commercial. In schools they show it. They try to reverse engineer what we were trying to mean by and the tagline has stuck around now for two years and it still means a lot to us.


OI: Now you kind of did another innovative thing piggybacking off that, allowing a hip-hop producer to be a major supplier for an American automobile manufacturing


RG: The Beats Audio?


OI: Beats Audio. I am so fascinated and I think that thats not even to discuss because now youre taking a person working in music in the studio and youre allowing him to work with engineers to kind of create an environment in the cabin where the music in the studio…


RG: So I gotta check you here. You gotta be careful when you say I, its we.


OI: Of course


RG: …And all we did was help with the graphics on the beats in the car so really, it really came from our marketing side who we have a great relationship with the west coast, right, so Dr. Dre, the movie industry, and the music industry is very well connected together so Olivier is always looking for opportunities. Saad and Olivier do a great job turning one opportunity into another opportunity into another opportunity so and its again, always thinking how can we do this better? How can we do it differently? and then you take a very passionate audio team at Chrysler. If you saw the audio guys at Chrysler, theyre a bunch of young music freaks. We have some of the best sound systems standard in our cars so you have a good foundation to build from so we looked at the Beats. We have a unique amplifier, unique subwoofer and then its really a very deliberate re-programming of how the music is – where you amplify, how much power you put to each speaker and then we sat with – the audio team sat with Dr. Dre literally and went through different EQ sweeps and hes the one who kind of said hey this is worthy of my Beats badge. So its a really cool – its a bit of a marketing play but its actually really – there was a real technical thing there where we had to get the system to the right level so I think theyve done a great job and the fact that now a youth that otherwise wouldnt have paid attention to a car and were gonna have Beats in the Dart. We have it in the 300S. We have it available in the Chargers and other cars coming so its very excited to connect the hip-hop world, as you say, to an automotive world which were mutually – you always see our vehicles in the videos and stuff like that but to kinda see that sub-culture now emanating as a technical piece is great. I think thats fantastic.


OI: Your work on the LX platform really powered SEMA for a number of years. I mean like every supplier was basically creating alternate versions.


RG: I thank Snoop Dogg for that. When he said I want one of those 300s, that was amazing.


OI: Amazing.


RG: That was unplanned. That was really organic. I was there. Ill never forget when Snoop walked down what we call Mopar Tunnel. We still use the Mopar Tunnel today and he saw the 300 concept car. We had re-painted it gold. It was green at the New York Auto Show. We had re-painted it, put 22s on it, slammed it. It looked amazing. And I remember he walked by and he stopped, did a double take, backed up, and his entire crew was crawling all over the car. What is this thing, you know, and from there the rest is history. It was really an emotional day.


OI: Thats really fabulous. And then also talk about


RG: He still has his car by the way.


OI: Im pretty sure.


RG: I met Snoop last – when we did the Kush video. I dont know if you know, I did a cameo in the Kush video. I was in the bar holding a drink. And I met Snoop Dogg in his trailer and we started talking and he goes youre that um – you know how he is, right – youre that um, designer, arent you? Im amazed he even knows who I am. So he said, I still have my 300. Its six and a half years old. Hes got 90,000 miles on it. He drives it all the time so thats proof-positivethats the real deal.


OI: I mean – and then that was so fabulous because that kinda set a benchmark. Normally when you have full-size American sedans theyre normally front-wheel drives and you guys took the risk to come out, starting – I think right there was like $22 – $23,000 when it first launched so youre starting out with $23,000, getting a rear-wheel drive American sedan


RG: that can fit 22s.


OI: that could fit 22s, could be customized and then people – and then it went from that $23,000 all the way to $50,000 with the SRT8 version and then theres another version – I mean theres another car I really wanted to talk about, the Challenger 392. I actually have a Ferrari owner who actually owns one of those, one of our customizer friends. He has the 392 in blue and white. So talk about that


RG: Its a special car


OI: And you only had like 1500 autographed


RG: Yeah its a very unique car. That particular white and the blue versions are very special. Its also, to me, you know part of the challenge of the 392 was turning the perception of a big car. We really worked hard on the suspension. I remember the SRT engineers and us debating, how can you make that care feel like it lost 1,000 pounds, you know. So they really went after the suspension, quickened the rack, did a lot of cool things with the negative camera setup. But taking the name – and 392 Ill have to admit was an accident. We calculated 6.4 cubic inches just happened to be 392 and all of us were like wait a minute didnt Don Garlits run a 392? It was like, no, dammitat that point we knew we had something and Ill never forget the debate – cause we have both badges. We have 6.4 and we have 392 and we use 392 on the Super Bee and the 392 Challenger only as part of thatand a lot of people even in our company, some will go where the hell – why would you go to cubic inches and people that remember those cars the cubic inch moniker is something very special, you know. It means a lot to them. It conjures up


OI: a small block V8…


RG: Yeah, it conjures up a lot of positive imagery so that was part of it and of course the white interior which is not easy to keep up but its also part of that, just having fun with it. I think being an American car company, its okay to have a good time with cars and once you do it, people wear them. People drive – I met a lady who owns the white one and they drive around and they wear the energy – people wave at you – you dont even know people. Its part of owning a car like that and I think. You dont see that too much in especially foreign cars. You don’t see that. The historys just not there to create that. So we have it. Its ours. Why not play with it.


OI: Now also talk about the Durango because the Durango and I mean I remember the Durango, the Aspen…


RG: Hes gonna wear me out. Im gonna need a couch hereItd be easier if you just plugged into my head and sucked it all out.


OI: I’m sorry…Butits intriguing, you saying that because I dont think that a lot of people are aware of the depth of work thats been done in a three year period like theres so many brands. Theres so many things. We’ve not even touched the surface of the work that you guys have done.


RG: The Durango is an unsung hero really cause its every bit as relevant as the Grand Cherokee, a matter of fact it’s, you know, the mechanical twin. Obviously its not designed for off-road as much. We had to make some compromises for aerodynamics cause its really used as an everyday family car, crossover, you know, very capable vehicle. The Durangos an incredible piece. I mean, especially the R/T version. Its one of my favorite driving vehicles. I mean its a vehicle that can do it all. You can carve an off-ramp if you want to. You can pick up the kids. You can tow your toy boat or whatever it is – the big boat, your 7600 pound boat. So its one of those vehicles that people are discovering. The sales are picking up nice and steady. We added captains chairs which was a big complaint. People really like to have the captains chairs, keep the kids from fighting and make it easier for them to run through the middle to get to the back. So we listened to our customers. We added captains chairs this year and that has helped us a lot. The take rate is over 60 % with the captains seats so wed clearly missed something when we launched it so thats helping with sales and the new marketing guys at Dodge are doing a great job positioning the car exactly well, uh, coming out. You know, it takes a while. When you launch a car it takes about a year to figure out what the right content is, where to put it, the stuff, so we adjust constantly. We adjust the content, adjust the features, where the particular models are. And the dealers help us after they sell a few and say you know, people like this better than that so usually it takes about a year, year and a half for product to kinda hit its stride when you get all those details right and thats whats happening when you talk about all our products, with the 19 products weve retouched and refreshed, some of them are now entering their first full year. The 300 is just now about to hit – its in the throws of its first year and the sales are picking up because the dealers are getting it right. Were getting it right. The plants getting it right. Everybodys getting it right and its working. So really its great time to be at this company.


OI: So talk about your transition then from being CEO at Dodge to now fully SRT8 and why were even here right?


RG: I feel somewhat legitimate because Ive always been an SRT fan. I mean I joined Chrysler because I saw the Viper as a show car in 89. I was a second year student at CCS in Detroit and I always went to the auto show and I saw it. My jaw dropped to the ground when I saw the Viper. I was like I cant believe the K-car company is making this and they were doing some cool show cars. You remember the Portofino?


OI: Of course.


RG: …if you remember the Portofino show car – so Chrysler had a lot of young designers back then dreaming. We were like – cause GM was always a place you wanted to be back then and when everyone saw those cars that Tom Gale was doing and the company was up to, I was like somethings going on there. Theres some secret sauce at Chrysler. So when I graduated I sought out the Viper team right away and went to see where they were at. I only saw the cars in the studio. I didnt realize it was a whole engineering team he had at the time and then when the coupe came out, it was about 94 when they had started styling the body of the coupe, I was like oh my God thats the most beautiful thing Ive ever seen so right then I met the team and then Ive been kind of a nuisance to them from the beginning and in 03, Dan Knott – rest in peace. I love that man. He passed away a few weeks ago. He helped set up SRT with me. I was on the design side and he was on the engineering side and we grew that SRT brand but it wasnt really a brand. It was…kind of a derivative, right and Sergio came around, he goes man, here we have this great brand. People see it differently than the other products. There are different people that buy SRTs so he said Ralph why don’t you run it as its own brand. And what that means is it gets its own dedicated website, its own marketing. We have our own trained call center people. We have our own P & L, a mini P & L for that. We have our own budget for marketing and what happens is you talk to the SRT customer in a different way now and they love it, right. They’re being recognized. We create new merchandise. We have a whole website full of SRT merchandise so here’s this pot of gold that we were sitting on that we didn’t really exploit and so for me here’s a car guy that really gets to be a car guy for real. So mommy, I’m allowed to be a car guy, you know and it’s great to have a boss who recognizes the need to take something thats good and even make it better so I’m like man I can’t…


OI: So you enjoyed instead of taking the whole Dodge brand…


RG: No, Dodge was great. You know, my job at Dodge was to build a brand, separate it from Ram, help – Fred Diaz and myself, we tried to give Dodge its own identity but that has been done so for me the creative side is – and it was overwhelming, Ill be very honest with you, running design at Dodge. Dodge is a huge job. It’s a big, big brand. It’s the highest volume brand in the company after Jeep if you take out international sales. So for me it was overwhelming. I think Sergio recognized that. Really for me, SRT fits me like a glove because its what I do. You know I love Motorsports. I run that as well so I’m very, very grateful to do what I do.


OI: So talk now about your work on the Viper. I wanted to get…like the whole – the company…you drove here in the Dart. That is an incredible car. I am telling everybody that you have a 8.4 inch monitor in a car that starts at $16,000. Like are you serious? And with all that telematics you guys have, I think that car is going to do a phenomenal job.


RG: That’s what happens when you care. When you put the customer first you get a car like the Dart, but in terms of the Viper, that’s a dream come true. Once again the boss surprised me in the middle of – we were creating all these vehicles – in the middle of the worst times, digging deep, trying to re-do the 200, re-do the minivan, finish the Grand Cherokee, put the final touches, re-invent the Durango as a Dodge – I mean so many things are going on and here he comes on, hey, how about a Viper too. It wasn’t a natural thing to do at the time, but again I think Sergio is so smart, he sees the value of here’s an icon. He realizes we have a handful of icons in our company, like the Wrangler’s an icon. The 300’s becoming an icon. The Viper is clearly an icon just like the 911 Porsche. You don’t throw those things away. You don’t abuse icons right, so we were given the chance to do it we said if we’re gonna try to do it we’re gonna do it as well as we can…


OI: But when I’m looking at it, right, you are coming at it in a different approach than what was there before. You’re bringing more refinement. You’re bringing new components to it. You have the 8.4 inch monitor in it, the quality of materials. You’re still keeping that awesome V10, right. 660 horsepower.


RG: The Viper’s a struggle because we have a very passionate base of owners that would like us not to change it because there’s a certain – it’s always been about raw power, very kind of essential car – only essentials, nothing more but technology’s caught up with us. You know, we had to put stability control. In 2012 every car on the road is mandated to have it and that opens up – with that comes the very, very sophisticated controls in the car – the PowerNet system we call it, which does a lot. It does a lot more than people will ever know is going on in the car so it opened up a lot of – it would be foolish of us not to bring the car of age. But what we’ve done, I think the engineers have done a great job is bringing the car of age, putting world-class technology but not yet but not losing the essence of the car. Underneath all of that technology is still an amazing car that is one of the purest sports cars in the world…It’s one of the lightest cars in the world. The horsepower ratio, it’s only third overall which is incredible. People say how come you don’t have 700 horsepower but look at 640 horse divided by you know 3300 pounds. Do the math. So you do that. You add stiffer frames. You add electronics. You add the variability, the fact that now this incredible computer can peak inside of the car and see all of these wonderful things. You can read G forces, transmission temperatures. You can do track mapping. You can do endless upgrades on the 8.4 cause now it’s an open architecture so it’s infinite what we can do with that system. We can re-flash customer’s cars. They can put an SD card and get a whole new car. So we’re just scratching the surface of what – so we think if someone doesn’t want to deal with that it can be passive but if you’re the kind of person that’s technically savvy you can get in there and have fun with it so it’s kind of the car matches your mood. It’s part of the mission.


OI: Well, we’d love a tour of the car but just in conclusion of our interview talk a little about – you’re one of the most senior minority executives in Detroit and to us…


RG: I am? (laughs)


OI: …I mean obviously right and I speak of that personally because in engineering and being a person in that position I could actually attest to having a child that’s inspired to design…so it’s like you know you have a new generation of people that are looking and seeing that you know what, this is possible, to be a person that could work on cars. Okay I like tinkering with like…


RG: I don’t take that for granted at all. I mean Chrysler’s been really good to me from the minute I joined in ’92 until now I never once suffered any kind of racism or anything. It’s been the opposite. They’ve always thrown me in the deep end of the pool, said go swim. Go for it. See your vision out. See your passions out so that’s been great and I do a lot of speaking. I go to high schools. I’ve been all over the country. I’ve been to Philadelphia. I’ve been to Atlanta, Chicago, L.A., New York. You name it. Florida. I’ve spoken to young people and I can see in their eyes that they’re saying wow if you can do it, I can do it and to me that’s everything. So I carry that – it’s a heavy weight that you realize you have to be careful how you carry yourself because somebody somewhere is either inspired by you or turned off by you, right. So I’m always conscious of whether you like it or now you’re gonna inspire someone somewhere – white, black, purple, it doesn’t matter – any young person wanting to do something different so yeah. It’s part of my job. I didn’t realize it was my job but, it’s become part of my job in a way. But I’m so like I’ve been at Chrysler so long and been doing this for so long, I don’t see it as a job anymore. It’s like my life and the company and my passions are so intertwined that I’m just – I’m just Ralph. It’s what I do and it’s what I love and you know, it’s still unfolding. I’m only forty-two so I can’t wait to what else crazy stuff is going to happen…


OI: Thank you…



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