John Calabrese was named vice president-Global Vehicle Engineering and president-Global Technology Operations at General Motors in 2011, with responsibility for the engineering of the automaker’s vehicles around the world.

An Illinois native, Calabrese joined GM in 1979 as a summer intern before hiring on full time in 1981 as an experimental engineer at the Milford, MI, proving grounds. After advancing through several engineering posts, he was named director-Global Advanced Purchasing for GM’s Worldwide Purchasing Organization in 1998 and in 1999 became executive director of the group responsible for $75 billion in annual parts buying. Since then, he has led exterior, interior, safety, HVAC and powertrain units and the GM de Mexico Toluca Regional Engineering Center.

A champion for education and continuing professional development, Calabrese holds a Design for Six Sigma black belt, as well a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering and administration from the Illinois Institute of Technology and Central Michigan University.

Calabrese talks with WardsAuto about managing his team through GM’s 2009 bankruptcy, a time when the automaker’s engineers were developing what would become its strongest product lineup in decades while the company’s future hung in the balance.

The bankruptcy wasn’t frustrating. I was running the chassis and HVAC business at the time and it wasn’t a matter of frustration, but rather how do you keep the team motivated. It’s like if your kids were to flunk an exam: your job is to get them over it and ask what they’re going to do about it. They go through a funk and then they come out of it.

I had to go through this myself, by the way, because I had people saying get out. And I said, well, I’m a lucky guy. I love what I do. I get to invent the future. This is a pretty good gig and the company has been good to me. So I felt like I had to make sure we got through it. That was the case with many of us. We said, keep your head down, we’ll get through this. Bankruptcy occurs. You had to keep their attention on what they do best, which is engineering the cars.

That’s when I started getting my (Six Sigma) black belt. You’ve got to continue to retrain. I was hiring kids out of the universities that could do laps around me. I didn’t know if I could hire myself. That was scary. So you play to the products and what you do, and the value you bring to the company.

Because we were cancelling stuff. We were selling furniture, for goodness sakes. But we kept plowing through. The Chevy Volt was one of our compasses and we were just kicking off the (large) truck redesign that’s launching now. And there were a couple of other products we were going through, so you had to put the blinders on and leave the bankruptcy to others as you were doing your core job.

It made you hone your game, because what would have happened if there wasn’t a new GM. You better have sharpened your saw because you might have to find a job. At the end of the day, you’ve got to have confidence in yourself and that’s what I was trying to build in my team.

And maybe I’m being biased, but I think now we’ve got a team that has some bounce in their Nikes. Look at the quality numbers, best in the industry as a company. Look at the Chevrolet Impala and the (large) pickups in Consumer Reports. Literally, these are great days. And by the way, it is going on around the world. I was at the Frankfurt auto show and our Opel display was tenfold more lively with the Monza concept car. That’s redefining the future of Opel.

It’s about delighting the consumer and during the tough times focusing on your job, because you shouldn’t worry about the things you cannot control. And, by the way, I was saying that to the mirror, too. I hired in at GM in 1979, so after 30 years to see the place go where it had gone…But the way I feel now, on my watch, I want us to become the best automobile company in the business.