GM’s Chief Tech Officer Stephens to Retire After 43-Year Rollercoaster Career

By Jacob Brown | January 17, 2012
Following General Motors’ 2008 bankruptcy, it’s been a guessing game trying to figure out how much of “New GM” is actually new versus an idiosyncratic carryover from the bad ol’ days. It’s also been tough sorting out the good apples among that bushel of company leadership. But if his list of accomplishments holds any weight, Tom Stephens and his 43 years of engineering and product development should largely be remembered as a GM success story. The 63-year-old engineer will take that legacy with him into retirement on April Fool’s Day. Starting his career at GM in 1969 while co-opping as a University of Michigan student, Stephens followed up as a junior engineer with Cadillac and an experimental projects engineer shortly thereafter. He added a half-dozen more titles to his name before becoming the vice president in charge of global powertrain engineering in 2007, the vice chairman of worldwide product operations in 2009, and the chief technology officer in 2011. He picked up the last role following the retirement of “Maximum” Bob Lutz.
While we can knock his resume all we want for helping design Cadillac’s mediocre 180-horsepower 4.5-liter V-8 engine in the 1980s, he more than made up for it with the Northstar V-8 engine in the 1990s. Stephens also helped consolidate engine families in the 2000s, disposing of GM’s antiquated pushrod V-6 engines that dated back to the Kennedy Administration. From our vantage, Stephens’ best days came in the latter half of his four-decade-plus career. He worked on GM’s truck development in the 2000s and was instrumental in getting the Chevrolet Volt to production, arguably the most technologically advanced car on the planet. The Volt may not be living up to sales expectations, but we’ll chalk that up to poor marketing, a recall, its high price, and bland styling more than its engineering excellence. Stephens is exiting GM amid a rapid push toward globalization, leaving plenty of room for his successor to bring in new ideas along with some fresh blood. Undoubtedly, Stephens’ departure extends the culture GM is trying to espouse: GM of today isn’t the GM of yesterday. The company needs to push forward without its old guard. But it would be narrow-sighted to think Stephens didn’t bring a lot of skill and insight to the table; he did. And his expertise will undoubtedly be missed after he clocks out for the last time on April 1. Source: GM