Gary Cowger Straddles the Divide He'll head GM's manufacturing and labor relations Ninety days from now Gary L. Cowger will have a new job and a new mission: Making cars and trucks - and keeping labor peace.

It's something that never has been done before at General Motors Corp., where manufacturing and labor relations traditionally have been separate functions. That split often has led to severely fractious relationships between GM and the United Auto Workers union.

Mr. Cowger will assume responsibility for both of GM's huge passenger-car and truck groups, now split between two executives, as well as all other manufacturing operations and labor relations on Jan.1.

The implications are enormous. It means that in effect he'll be working both sides of the street: Trying to improve GM's lagging productivity and reducing new-model cycle times while mending fences with the UAW and gaining its trust and support.

GM notoriously has had the worst relations with the UAW in the industry. Typically the manufacturing honchos have taken a hard line in bargaining, clearly looking at complex labor issues from their unique corporate perspective. Labor relations was left mainly to lawyers and personnel people lacking in-plant experience. Guess who had the most leverage with top management?

Now, as President G. Richard Wagoner's point man, Mr. Cowger, 53, who started as an 18-year-old GM Institute co-op student at the GM Assembly Div. plant in Kansas City in 1965, will straddle the divide.

An outgoing, gregarious executive who picked up his GMI engineering degree in 1969 and a master's in management on a Sloan Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1978, Mr. Cowger uncharacteristically is keeping silent about his new post until he actually takes over.

Richard Shoemaker, the UAW vice president responsible for the GM Dept., also had no early comment on the new arrangement. Messrs. Shoemaker and Cowger hammered out a new four-year contract a year ago without a work stoppage.

That pact runs through the fall of 2003, more than a year after UAW President Stephen P. Yokich will retire at age 65. A long-time fiery, harsh critic of GM, where he once led the GM Dept., Mr. Yokich has five UAW presidents as potential successors. Among them is Dick Shoemaker.

UAW oddsmakers aren't laying down their bets just yet, but whomever gets the top UAW spot, they'll be dealing with a GM executive who has spent nearly all of his career on the manufacturing side - a "plant guy" who knows what it takes to make vehicles.

Mr. Cowger spent his first 10 years at the Kansas City facility, rising through a series of increasingly important posts. In 1979, after MIT, he transferred to the Oldsmobile Div. in Lansing, MI, as general superintendent, moving on to the St. Louis, MO, assembly plant as production manager, then manager of the Wentzville, MO, assembly plant in 1982. In that job he also was responsible for building, staffing and launching new assembly plants. Four years later he took over as complex manager at GM's sprawling Lordstown, OH, assembly and stamping operations.

From there he moved to the Cadillac Motor Div. as manufacturing manager in 1987, helping Cadillac win the Malcolm Baldrige quality award, and in 1990 rose to executive director-advanced engineering at the GM Tech Center in Warren, MI.

In 1993 Mr. Cowger was appointed executive-in-charge of the North American Operations Manufacturing Center, and a year later gained prominence when he was elected a GM vice president and named president of GM de Mexico. In June 1998 he became manufacturing vice president for GM Europe, responsible for coordination of Opel and Vauxhall manufacturing, assembly and component operations in Europe.

He didn't remain in Europe long, however. After the disastrous 54-day UAW strike in 1998 that reportedly cost GM $2 billion, he was recalled to take over as group-v.p. in charge of labor relations, his current title.

Chairman John F. (Jack) Smith Jr. once was asked why Mr. Cowger didn't get the labor relations job sooner, a move that may well have averted the '98 stoppage. Because, said Mr. Smith, he was needed in Europe, where he spent just 14 months.

Giving Mr. Cowger two hats wins applause from close industry observers.

Stephan Sharf, retired executive v.p.-manufacturing at the "old" Chrysler Corp. and a WAW columnist, says Chrysler pulled manufacturing and labor together in the early '80s. "That's the way it belongs," he says. "Before we did that, we had people sitting there (at the bargaining table) who'd never seen the inside of a plant. We had horrible conditions."

Mr. Sharf adds: "Who knows labor conditions in the plant better than manufacturing? I'm surprised it took GM so long to do this."

Like Mr. Cowger, Mr. Sharf rose through the plants. He still insists that nearly all strikes are triggered by "local conditions," not bigger picture issues. In theory, Mr. Cowger and his troops will have the issues covered on each side and thus presumably will be able to make better decisions acceptable to both.

David E. Cole, director of the University of Michigan Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation and a close associate of Mr. Cowger, thinks he's well qualified to handle his dual role.

After the '98 debacle, the UAW quietly informed GM that it wanted Mr. Cowger on the labor relations side, says Mr. Cole. "That was the UAW's call. It was clear that both sides had to get off the dime because that strike was costly for both. I think the UAW respects Gary. It's not a love affair, but I think they think he's fair. He knows the plants, and he's certainly not intimidated by the UAW.

"I see both sides beginning to loosen up, because - again - both felt the strike was stupid. They'll still have their differences, but now they can get back on track to work together to improve productivity - and their competitive position."

Known as a Dapper Dan for his natty attire, Mr. Cole describes Mr. Cowger as "a really smart guy who is also ambitious; he's had his eye on this target for a long time. He hasn't been pining away in the woods."