Corvette Plant Manager Wil Cooksey To Retire
Wilmer “Wil” Cooksey, general manager of the Bowling Green Corvette Assembly Plant, will retire in March.
Paul Graham, who is currently assistant plant manager of GM’s Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, Kan., will succeed Cooksey on Jan. 1.
Beginning his career as an assistant professor in industrial engineering at General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich., Cooksey rose through the ranks of several GM facilities. He took over as Corvette plant manager in February 1993, following the tenure of Paul Schnoes.
Cooksey said now is the best time to leave - following the successful implementation of GM’s new global manufacturing system at the plant, as well as recent negotiations with the United Auto Workers union that secured local jobs and future production of the Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac XLR.
“It’s great to go out when you’re on top (rather) than when you’re struggling,” he said. “Basically when I look at where I am today, my plant here in Bowling Green is in the best position than it’s ever been in.”
Looking back at 1993 - when Cooksey was brought in after serving in Fairfax, Doraville and St. Louis assembly plants - he saw an operation that needed a reality check or was otherwise on the verge of closing.
Before everyone was acutely aware that changes had to be made, Cooksey rolled up his sleeves to address the concerns from upper management - concerns many employees weren’t even aware of.
“You would be amazed at some people’s thoughts that some people thought everything was fine or OK and not really realizing what home office thought,” Cooksey said.
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 also started using the concepts of “lean manufacturing” in 1994 to revamp workplace standards and was met with some opposition.
But what was once a pocket of resistance to implementing GM’s concepts of lean manufacturing - eliminating waste, keeping costs in line and other values - ended up being a shining star for both Cooksey and the plant.
A recent corporate audit that gauged employees’ level of understanding on operating in a global manufacturing system showed 83 percent proficiency - better than all of GM’s other plants in North America, he said.
“We ended up being number one in the corporation right here in Bowling Green, Ky.,” Cooksey said. “We’re looking at being 100 percent next go-round. You never go back, you keep focusing forward. We don’t have the low hanging fruit anymore, you have to go way up high on the tree.”
Cooksey said what he will miss the most is the people he’s worked for and with.
The Fort Worth, Texas, native describes himself as a tolerant leader who listens to people and makes decisions based on loads of information he gathers.
When Cooksey noticed many of the employees were driving cars made by GM’s competitors, he established a parking lot for non-GM vehicles in the back of the plant. He wanted to send a message.
“Somehow, I had to give them some awareness on how serious it is to support the company.”
Eldon Renaud was bargaining chairman for UAW Local 2164 when Cooksey arrived. Now in his role as president of the union, he said the future is brighter because of Cooksey’s efforts.
“I think he’s a pioneer in the automobile industry. He worked closely with the UAW to build a world-class work environment in Bowling Green,” Renaud said.
Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jim Hizer said that within the GM family, the Corvette has been a true success story - just as it’s been for Bowling Green and for much of southcentral Kentucky.
“Much of that success is due to the family and team atmosphere that Wil has brought to the Bowling Green facility, and I can say that those of us at the chamber will miss working with him very much and we wish him well in his retirement,” Hizer said. “If this facility here grows as some are predicting, then that would be a fitting legacy for Wil.”
Bowling Green Mayor Elaine Walker, meanwhile, said Cooksey is a man who “brings people together to achieve” and is committed to the local community.
“He encourages his people to excel,” Walker said. “We’re going to miss him.”
Cooksey said he will remain in Bowling Green and continue serving in leadership positions for several local organizations, including the boards of the National Corvette Museum, Greenview Hospital, Tennessee State University’s Foundation Board of Trustees (he completed his undergraduate work there in 1965), Western Kentucky University’s School of Business Advisory Board and the WKU College of Education and Behavioral Science.
Cooksey can also be seen as GM’s representative for ads in Ebony and Essence magazines in support of the company’s diversity efforts.
In retirement, Cooksey plans to increase his pursuit of his hobbies, which include drag racing and flying airplanes. Although he plans to squeeze in 25 days of vacation before he officially hangs up the reins in March, he said he looks forward to spending much more time with his wife, Elizabeth, a professor at WKU, his two children, David and Crissy, and three grandchildren, J.D., Katrina and Kieara.
— A retirement celebration will be held March 7 at the Sloan Convention Center for Cooksey and his family.