It’s an American automotive icon synonymous with sport and speed and sex appeal — the two-seat Corvette. This pop-culture phenom dating back to 1953 is a vehicle Dave Tatman, head of the Kentucky Automotive Industry Association, knows in and out. After all, he watched a steady line-up of the sleek, high performance cars roll off the manufacturing floor with something like paternal pride. In the end, Tatman wound up a 34-year career with General Motors working as manager of the Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. And he loved it.
“It was the greatest job on the planet,” Tatman says. “It was so much fun. I built out the sixth generation Corvette, and I launched the seventh generation Corvette while I was there, so that’s the brand new Stingray that’s on the road today.”
His leadership at the Corvette plant was the culmination of a string of jobs in GM locations in three countries and on two continents — 13 total. There were a few potholes along that expressway to success.
“I had been around the world with GM, all in manufacturing, and I loved every minute of my career with GM. There were some fraught times. We went through bankruptcy while I was there. But when we came to Kentucky, I just saw it as another step on the journey.”
Kentucky became his final destination with GM when he and his wife fell in love with the state, and his daughter, close to finishing high school, was over the moon about the move. A long-time equestrian, when the teen was faced with leaving her Michigan friends behind for the bluegrass state, instead of being reluctant, her first thought was, “Dad, if we’re going to move to Kentucky, we could buy a horse farm.”
Tatman’s initial negative reply was short-lived. Today, he’s a horse farm owner, and that means he’s sunk his roots deeply in the turf, as well as many an hour in chores maintaining the farm. As an avid trout fisherman and bird hunter, he enjoys the outdoors and even recently added a birddog pup to the family.
“We love the farm and still do love our life in Kentucky,” he says. “When the time inevitably came for GM to look for another opportunity for me, I decided that 34 years was enough. I decided to retire.”
That was in 2014 – 34 years to the day from when he began his career with GM on Feb. 28, 1980. By that time, Tatman had been actively working with the Cabinet for Economic Development in the state.
“I spent $131 million of GM’s money to tool the factory that built the new car, and we had worked with the state on some workforce and other issues, (including tax incentives),” Tatman says.
It should not have been surprising when shortly after retirement, he got a call from Larry Hayes, then cabinet secretary for Kentucky’s Economic Development Cabinet, congratulating him on the end of a successful career. The next question was more unexpected.
“He says, ‘But what are you going to do now?’” Tatman recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, Larry, I’m done with work for General Motors, but I’m probably not done working.’
“And he said, ‘Good, because the governor and I have got an idea. We think that Kentucky, given our size and scope in automotive, really ought to have a statewide automotive association like most of the other states do, particularly our friends in southeast that you know well.’”
Hayes went on to explain they envisioned a stand-alone agency apart from the government.
Recognizing Tatman’s insider experience with the industry made him their prime candidate and his retirement fleeting. By the first of July 2014, Tatman began his new role as executive’s director of the KAIA, building the organization from the ground up.
The 12-member KAIA board of directors includes representatives from GM, Ford and Toyota, all OEMS with plants in Kentucky, as well as eight other tier-one suppliers, and the Cabinet for Economic Development.
“Obviously from the very beginning, we’ve had the endorsement of the executive branch and the legislative branch, as well as many, many others throughout the state,” says Tatman, who began working with Governor Steve Beshear and now works with current Governor Matt Bevin.
With 500 automotive manufacturers in the state, 80 of Kentucky’s 120 120 counties have at least one manufacturing plant.
“I represent automotive manufacturers from Pikeville to Paducah and from Florence to Franklin,” Tatman says. “I get to make contact with those people all over the state. And I might be talking to a 35-employee machine shop in Paris, Kentucky, just as quickly as I might be talking to Toyota in Georgetown, but (I’m) really getting the perspective of all members of the automotive ecosystem here in the state on things that matter to us. I enjoy that a great deal.”
Don’t get him wrong, he thrived in the high-pressure world of manufacturing those gorgeous Corvettes, it’s just that he feels he’s paying his experience forward in a way: “I loved those days,” Tatman says. “I was born to do that job, but now I get to help my colleagues who still do those jobs. I get to help them in ways that I always hoped that somebody was (when I was in manufacturing). I didn’t know if anybody was or not, and now there’s somebody who is, and that’s me.”
When the original charter for the Kentucky Automotive Industry Association was set forth, it included four objectives. The first was branding for Kentucky automotive to recognize its exalted position as the third largest state in the country in automotive production. Tatman wanted that fact to shine.
“At the time, we didn’t act like it,” Tatman says. “No one knew it. We didn’t hold ourselves out as an automotive state; it just wasn’t something that was on the radar screen. The first thing we had to do was establish our identity as a player in the global automotive business. And I think we’ve done a pretty effective job of that.”
To keep that recognition at the forefront, Tatman maximizes media coverage and makes presentations all over the state. That translates into a lot of time on the road — enough to put 120,000 miles on a truck he bought new less than four years ago.
“I get a lot of windshield time,” Tatman says. “Fortunately, this is a pretty state.”
Tatman says the auto industry is continuing its growth through attracting new business and expanding existing operations, as well as infusing new capital investment dollars.
“We have attracted up over probably $7.5 billion worth of projects in automotive fields in the last five to six years,” he says. “That represents 20,000 new jobs. It’s been a really good time to do a position like this because the automotive industry has been on a pretty good run since we came out of the recession in 2009, and that certainly continued from ’14 on when I’ve been doing this. There’s a lot of energy around that.”
Having nailed the first objective of branding, KAIA turned its attention to advocacy through legislation and policy decisions, and to assuming a leadership position in an industry that employs close to 100,000 people and contributes more than $14 billion a year to Kentucky’s GDP. Tatman’s focus includes seminars, conferences, webinars and regional forums to help educate the industry about tech advances and best practices.
The fourth objective is workforce development – an issue in Kentucky as it is across the industry.
“Workforce is a big, big issue in our state, as it is in any automotive state. I work with school systems all over the state; I work with all kinds of different state agencies in terms of workforce development issues. I work with the universities, technology transfer, and innovation, entrepreneurship-type start-ups to benefit our industry.”
Tatman is factoring in all those details as he focuses on continuing to supply the talent needed to continue to move the industry forward.
Tatman routinely attends events on behalf of the automotive industry in Kentucky.
“It used to be that when I first started going to like the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit or the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Michigan, I’d go there and people would say, ‘What’s Kentucky doing here?’
“And now when I go there they say, ‘What are you guys doing in Kentucky? It’s really booming!’