GM's Joaquin Nuño-Whelan is a chief engineer & vehicle director
Tasked with "seeing the bigger picture," he's been responsible for small cars in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Now he's moving on to South Korea
Joaquin Nuño-Whelan is chief engineer and vehicle line director for small cars in North America at General Motors (GM, Detroit, MI). He is currently responsible for both technical and business decisions for small cars in the United States, Canada and Mexico, and for launching plants in the region from the engineering side. "I'm not just the technical guy; it's up to me to see the bigger picture," he explains.
"At the end of the day, it's the whole car," he says. "You have to balance everything out and make sure it's going to work, make money and create jobs. That's the challenge and the reward for me."
Nuño-Whelan was born in Santa Fe, NM and grew up in Albuquerque. "I always wanted to work on cars and I knew about GM," he remembers. "My parents are from Michigan so when we came back to visit we would see the auto industry and the quality of life it gave the people here."
STEM from the start
In high school he was involved in many math and science programs, and he credits the local Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program for stimulating his interest. MESA's goal is to motivate and empower culturally diverse students with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) enrichment. "It's an after-school or lunchtime program where engineers from big technical companies would come to the school and do hands-on projects with us," he says. "That was a lot of fun."
He went on to the University of Detroit Mercy (Detroit, MI) for his 2000 BSME. "The University of Detroit is a very automotive-focused school and they have a strong co-op program so you get to work in the field you are studying," he explains.
The school also had an exchange program, partnering with automotive companies and engineering schools in Mexico and Canada. "I went to school in Monterey, Mexico for a semester and then in Toronto, Canada," Nuño-Whelan says. "I really appreciated the experience because it set me up well for the work I've done here."
Starting at GM
Nuño-Whelan has been at GM for fourteen years, three as a co-op student and eleven full-time. "The first job I had was at the Milford Proving Ground, the perfect place to work if you're a car guy." At Milford more than 130 miles of two-lane highway are set on 4,000 acres, he says. "All the future cars are tested out there. Once I saw all they were doing I was a GM guy!"
Sonic: global and interchangeable
Most recently he was responsible for the launch of Chevrolet's 2012 Sonic. "It was the most fun and yet most challenging car I have ever worked on," he says. "Sonic is a small car and Chevy had never had a segment-leading subcompact. We went into it saying, 'Let's do it right. Drop all the baggage and bureaucracy from the old GM.'
"This is the most global and most interchangeable car we've ever done," he stresses. Many parts are common across several vehicle platforms. "The challenge came in adopting that global philosophy from the ground up. A lot of the styling was done in Korea with help from the U.S. and Australia. The transmission and engine came from Germany. We also had regional teams in the U.S., China and Europe.
"I'm proud to represent the entire global team that worked on the Sonic," Nuño-Whelan says. "It was fun to have the latitude to accomplish what we did. We are also very, very proud that it's built in Detroit, bringing back to life a plant that was shut down."
A report from each plant
At GM Nuño-Whelan has five people reporting to him directly from five assembly plants, plus indirect reports representing every major function of the car: the chassis, electrical system, power train and more. "My drive is to build a strong team and empower people to do their jobs," he says. "Let's go fast, do the right thing and solve problems. I want people to be fired up to come and work for me. I stand behind them when big things are happening. But we have fun, too, and no matter what, we're home for dinner and then ready to do it all again the next day."
A family man with a wife and three children, Nuño-Whelan is emphatic about balancing work and home life. "If I'm not home for dinner the day has been a failure."
There's more still to Nuño-Whelan's story. He's long been involved in the educational and community outreach programs of GM's Hispanic initiative team. Since college he's been working with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and he's also affiliated with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).
When he first worked in Detroit he directed the Young Engineers and Scientists program (YES). "I was coming full circle doing something similar to the MESA program," he says. "We worked with kids with hands-on after-school and weekend engineering programs. In inner-city Detroit kids had stopped thinking that they could do things, so we wanted to turn it around and say, 'Yes you can!'" Today YES has been turned over to students at the University of Michigan to run.
In 2006 Nuño-Whelan began a two-year assignment in Mexico, and while there he launched the first FIRST Robotics competitions in that country. As a result of that success, GM has launched a FIRST Robotics team in every country around the world where it has a facility.
But coming back from Mexico in 2008, he wanted to do more. "It was the time when GM was going through bankruptcy, and there was so much negativity about Detroit," he remembers. "We wanted to do something about Detroit, or better still, teach the kids there how to do it themselves.
"Some guys from work and I decided to take an empty lot where there used to be burned-out houses and turn it into something positive, a community garden, and teach the kids how to do it." This was the beginning of Nuño-Whelan's own nonprofit organization, Green Place Detroit (www.greenplacedetroit.com). The group is focused on connecting middle- and high-school students with the opportunity to make a lasting impact on the community through its Urban Garden and EcoHouse projects. The first phase of each project is the garden; the EcoHouse is the flagship project, still in the fundraising stage.
Nuño-Whelan's experience with the Sonic required considerable international travel, and that continues today. Early in 2012 he begins a three-year international service assignment in Seoul, South Korea, taking his family along. "The biggest draw is that our kids will go to an international school with not just Koreans but children from all over the world. That experience will be tremendous."
Doing the job
An MBA or executive MBA may be on the horizon for Nuño-Whelan, but not anytime soon. "I'm in a great spot right now," he says. "I'm doing the job I set out to do when I left New Mexico. This is the perfect job for me, coming up with cars that are safer and more fuel efficient, or that don't use gas at all.
"And we want to think of the community wherever we are, and work to build up good programs and keep the cycle and momentum going."
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