Even though he holds the title of CEO, Ralph Gilles isn’t afraid to get some dirt on his hands, or in this case, motor oil. As the CEO of Dodge and the head of design for the Chrysler group, Gilles, 40, is responsible for the design studios of the the Jeep, Dodge, Chrysler and Ram brands. Gilles became an auto industry star when he conceived the regal body of the Chrysler 300C, first introduced as a concept car in 2003. As CEO, he’s ushered in a new era for the reconceived Dodge brand. He’s part of a team that has worked around the clock to reinvent Chrysler’s strategy over the last two years. When he’s not at work, 40-year-old Gilles trains for marathons, races cars and squeezes in some occasional lap time in Gran Turismo 5.
Life + Times: Can you define what your role is in the company?
Ralph Gilles: The CEO to the outside world is an impressive title, but it means something very different inside. Sergio Marchionne is our real CEO, but because he is such a big believer in brand management and equity of brand, there’s a watchdog for each brand. Dodge and I fit well together. I want to take the brand to a place that I think it needs to be. I’m trying to make the brand younger, more current, to get more technology into the brand, refine it better, but yet not forget who we’ve always been. The brand was founded by the Dodge brothers, who walked away from the status quo and wanted to do their own thing. I think that still lives in us. I’m a big believer of individualism and holding on to what we believe in. That’s what I bring to the party, my passion for cars. I’m a car guy; at least I think I am. I do live it. I tinker with cars still until this day, as I can find time. I still race; I read car magazines all the time. I really eat, breathe and sleep cars. Hence the Dodge brand fits.
L+T: Everyone wants to reach the younger buyer.
RG: Design is one thing. The product itself has to appeal to people. What it may mean to you may not mean the same thing to us, to them. That’s a bit tricky. Part of it’s solving problems [younger customers] have. How can you get a highly contented vehicle at a price a young professional can afford if this is their first car? You have to make conscious decisions to make sure the car has the content of the things that will appeal to them, not just things you think will work. You can’t design a car for a 50 year-age spread. You’re going to have to sub divide your cars and make them really succinctly packaged for an entire generation. More importantly is marketing to them. It’s probably the toughest generation ever to market to. The 18 – 35 year old is extremely spastic in the way they consume media. Whether it’s music, digital media, TV, everything is so at their service. They can delay the consumption of something. I can do it myself. I can record a show and don’t watch it for a month. If you have a television offer, it’s already gone. Part of it’s getting a young staff. We have a relatively young staff at Dodge now to reflect our market. I may feel young inside, but I’m not getting any younger myself so I needed to surround myself with young people. I get a lot of that through the people I hire in the design office, exposing myself to the cultures. We do a lot of work with focus groups and young people to kind of get that input. We’re always reinventing ourselves, to change how we speak to our customer. Our marketing commercials are much more edgy now. Our graphics are more contemporary. Our language is a little more current.