Executive Q&A: Nora Roper’s Uniquely Global Perspective on GM

After years with General Motors, the assistant manager at the Kentucky-based Corvette Assembly Plant talks about opportunity, international operations and a lifelong love of Chevy's most famous sports car

Corvette may be “America’s Sports Car,” but one of the leaders in the facility that builds them brings a world of experience – as well as a longtime love for the product. Nora Roper, the assistant plant manager at GM’s Corvette Assembly Plant in Kentucky, has worked for the company across the globe and through several progressive career moves.

As she looks forward to upcoming developments – GM is working on autonomous vehicles and acquiring Cruise Automation, as well as offering car sharing through the Maven service, and developing a network of on-demand autonomous vehicles with Lyft – Roper shares her wide-ranging perspective in this issue’s Executive Q&A.

Q: If I’m reading your Linked In profile correctly, you’ve been with GM for more than 20 years and through several postings. Tell us, did you always know you wanted to work for General Motors?

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NR: I can say that I have always wanted to be an engineer and solve problems. I have always had a curiosity of wanting to know how things work and function. General Motors gave me an opportunity to study engineering and practice my engineering skills by hiring me on as a co-op student. That opportunity grew into my first full-time position as a manufacturing engineer in a GM facility.

Q: What makes GM the best place to work, from your perspective?

NR: One saying I have is “performance equals freedom” and freedom means opportunities.  General Motors has offered me many opportunities with challenging assignments of increasing responsibility across four states and two countries. That’s why General Motors is the best place to work and why I have over 30 years with the company.

Q: What do your duties as assistant plant manager entail at the Corvette Assembly plant? What’s your day to day routine?

NR: As an APM, I am responsible for the day-to-day business of running the plant.  The people, parts and processes of building the Corvettes and engines.  The day starts early with reviewing the production shift data, preparing for the day’s activities and strategizing with the plant manager.  Early in the shift, I have a production meeting with the staff which allows all of the functional departments (Production, Material, Quality, Maintenance, Engineering, Human Resources and Information Technology) to hear the issues and take the necessary actions to enable us to have a successful day.

As with all of our meetings, this meeting begins with a safety message – safety is always first and foremost at General Motors. There’s nothing more important than the safety of our people; every person, every site, every day.

Many of the standard meetings throughout the day are held on the production floor and are designed for engagement with the teams. They typically incorporate some sort of informal check to ensure that systems are being followed and allow for people to offer help, where needed.  My job is to empower the team, break down barriers and provide resources — people and money, when necessary.

Other portions of the day are dedicated to looking ahead – what are the new best practices in manufacturing and how can we incorporate across the entire plant?  What are the process improvements currently planned and how do they affect the people and parts?  It’s all about supporting the teams that build the Corvettes and engines.

Q: Does the single-focus of the Corvette Plant make its operational requirements different from other GM plants?

NR: No, the operational system requirements are not different for Corvette. “GM-GMS” is the Global Manufacturing System for all GM facilities. This system drives consistency across General Motors and allows us to leverage our size and diversity.  What’s different at Corvette, compared to the other six GM facilities I’ve worked for, is our size.  With lower volume than typical GM assembly plants, it means less square footage and less people.

Q: Are you a big Corvette fan? How much is test driving America’s Sports Car a part of your work?

NR: I’m a HUGE Corvette fan!  I absolutely love driving Corvettes – it’s been a privilege and a thrill!!  Let me tell you when my love of Corvettes started… I was probably seven years old.  My neighbor had a really cool car with an engine that absolutely roared. Whenever he got his sportscar out (of course, I would hear it), I would literally run to the window to get a glimpse of it as he drove by. It wasn’t until years later that I realized his Corvette happened to be a 1963 since it had the split rear window.

I have the privilege of driving “Captured Test Fleet Corvettes.” A couple of years ago, when I was driving a 2017 Grand Sport Coupe, I enjoyed it so much so that I actually bought the car. So, now I own a Corvette. For the last 8 months, I have been driving the most powerful production Corvette ever built – the ZR1 with 755 hp. It is awesome and has unbelievable power and handling.

Q: I see that you used to be the organizational lead for PFMEA North America. What exactly was that role?

NR: This was a headquarters assignment and I was working out of the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan.  I was responsible for implementing quality systems in all of the GM assembly plants in North America, one of which is called PFMEA or process failure mode effects analysis. PFMEA is a proactive process that considers the failure modes in manufacturing and mitigates the risks by designing out the failure mode or adding detection to ensure quality in the workstation. I had a team of people that supported the assembly plants by creating and maintaining the PFMEA process. It was always rewarding knowing that my team and I were making a difference in the quality systems in our plants, and it allowed me the opportunity to network across the [North American] organization.

Q: You’ve managed or assisted in managing engine plants, quality control and in the Opel plant in Hungary. What did you take from those experiences that prepared you for the current role?

NR: The APM in the Romulus Engine Plant prepared me for the APM role at the Corvette Plant in that the tasks/decisions of an APM are the same whether it’s dedicated to engines or cars.

I would say that looking back, many of my roles and assignments have prepared me for my current responsibilities.

The quality manager role I had allowed me to utilize my mechanical engineering degree along with practical production experience to put the right quality systems in place to ensure sound quality of the products we build.

Because of my knowledge of the product and production and quality systems experience, I was uniquely qualified to lead the startup of building Allison transmissions at Opel Hungary which, at the time, was a GM facility. The experience at Opel was all encompassing, giving me the opportunity to learn more about other functional areas of the business such as material planning, scheduling, delivery, finance systems and sales/marketing. Putting it all together — engineering, production, quality, finance, prepared me and qualified me for the APM role.

Q: When it came to working in Hungary, how was that different than a plant in the U.S.?

NR: First, I would say the experience in Hungary allowed me to grow both personally and professionally.  It had a positive impact on my family (husband and children) and on my career.

Hungarian people are very welcoming and respectful.  They needed my help and my experience with the Allison transmission product and manufacturing systems.

The people were very grateful for their jobs and were willing to do whatever it took to make a quality product. Therefore, the workforce tended to be more flexible when it came to schedule changes.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to represent GM overseas.

Q: What’s the part of your work that’s most gratifying for you?

NR: Knowing that we have a nearly impossible task or metric but then seeing the team pull together, comes up with a plan, and makes it happen. Great things are accomplished by a great team! Of course, you also have to have the right leadership with a clear direction. The work and the accomplishment is through the team!

Q: Are there any trends in the industry as a whole that you’re excited about or looking forward to exploring?

NR: Yes, absolutely — utilizing technology to make our cars and roadways safer!  Specifically, I’m looking forward to the future of personal mobility.  GM is looking at global trends and societal changes like urbanization, sustainability and the sharing economy.  These are the changes that are driving the rapid transformation of our industry.

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