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Profile: Ford's Vaughn Koshkarian
Mastering the Inscrutable Universe

Vaughn Koshkarian admits he likes China. It's not so much an outpouring of praise for the ancient country, but, rather, it's in the nuances, the smiles, the way he phrases a description of the country that he briefly called his home.

Koshkarian has been returning regularly to China since being named as President of Ford Motor Company's Asia-Pacific Operations a little more than a year ago.

His task is a massive one for the $276.2 billion multinational that is the world's second largest auto maker. China, Thailand and India are some of the emerging markets where much of the auto industry's battle for customers will increasingly take place in coming years.

Now Koshkarian is on the fast track for his company, continuing to lay the groundwork in establishing friendships and partnerships in the footsteps of his predecessor, Ford's former Vice Chairman, Wayne Booker.

Finding the Common Bond

Koshkarian's comments reveal what appears to be a tacit understanding of what it takes to keep two totally different, potentially volatile worlds from colliding. The American way is not the Chinese way, he is the first to stress. But there are more commonalties than differences no matter where two peoples are located.

"I believe just as when people from China come to work here or people from here go to work in China, you tend to understand the culture, the cultural differences or divides," he says in his executive row suite at Ford Motor's Dearborn, Michigan headquarters. "You also understand a substantial amount that binds you together that is common, that isn't different."

`During his previous years in China, he says he confirmed the good citizen aspect of the task. "You have to work to improve peoples' lives," he says. For Koshkarian, his easy manner and impish sense of humor seem ideal for the task in a country where large egos can be an impediment and self-effacing humility a plus.

In his own office on the executive suite level of Ford's Dearborn, Michigan headquarters, there's no massive desk to intrude between himself and the persons he is talking to. Instead, everyone is moved to a long table, piled with books and presumably travel papers at one end, while jokes, puns and refreshments are offered at the other.

He's delighted to meet a fellow native of Waukegan, Illinois, not far from Northwester University where he earned both a bachelor's and MBA in finance

On Speaking Terms

When he speaks of the heads of state he must deal with in charting Ford's future in the East, there's a tone of familiarity that comes through that seems genuine. These are among the world's top leaders and he will move as easily in dealing with them directly on topics of utmost concern as he does to the foibles of trying to negotiate the clogged streets of Beijing on a Harley Davidson motorcycle - "it's not that bad" - without the distraction of a pollution-protecting face mask.

China's infamous toxic air is not that bad either, he says, of reports that air pollution is a major problem for someone navigating around outside. But in his role as representative of one of the world's largest corporations, it's doubtful he would be too critical even if ongoing attempts hadn't been made to clean up the air somewhat.

As Ford's top emissary, he must wing countless miles and unnumbered hours to Australia, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and of course China. He will spend a few weeks back at company headquarters as a brief respite before taking off once again, perhaps this time for South Africa.

Endurance Test

As with any other airborne executive, he has learned the necessity of sleep, and has learned to tuck as many as 10 hours of shuteye into a 13-hour, intercontinental flight.

"Oh, you've got to do it," he stresses. "I get more sleep on a plane than I do at home."

After 36 years with the company, Koshkarian at 60, has had his share of jobs. After his first Ford job as a field representative in Illinois, he later moved through finance, product planning, business strategy and general management and even public affairs as he expanded his experience in the international arena. With jobs as controller of Ford of Europe and president of Ford Motor in China in Beijing for two years behind him, he was the logical choice to take on the expansive Asia-Pacific assignment following Booker's departure.

Like a good and loyal solider, his efforts to move Ford to the top of the intercontinental pecking order in the face of unrelenting competition are a constant undercurrent.

Remembering the Past

"Ford Motor Company has a global heritage," he says. "Shortly after founding, Henry Ford was selling vehicles in many different countries around the world and it became part of who we are as a company."

(Ford's previous presence in China ended with World War II and the country's conversion to Communism that led to the nationalization of all foreign entities doing business there.)

Part of Koshkarian's job now in China and other countries is to learn to "think" what customers want, a process he refers to as developing a real "consumer headset" - understanding the customer inside and out.

On the road to learning about China, he has tackled his job as more than a means of selling cars and trucks in an Asian country. Despite of his lack of facility in that language (fragmentary at best), he has managed an impressive number of friendship-solidifying memberships. He has served on the U.S.-China Business Council board, as vice chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China and chairman of its U.S. Government Relations Committee, as well as other Asian business and research organizations.

A Car Guy at Heart

The miles of travel he faces each year leave him precious little time for the first love that grew during his years in the industry - the vehicles themselves.

An admitted "real car nut," like many other self-described auto fanatics, he is constantly looking for that one perfect set of wheels to add to his collection, already loaded with old cars and trucks, tractors and other "stuff," that spans decades.

"I bought a hot rod, a 1932 hot rod," he says, with obvious delight about the deal, sending him into car nut geek speak. "It's a 1932 Ford highboy with big tires and no fenders. It was the car B.F. Goodrich actually used in some of their posters and advertisements.

"It's got a '39 Mercury transmission (and) a 289 Ford Motorsport engine in it. It's all detailed and color-keyed to the body and everything, but because it's got a '39 Merc, I can slip a flathead (V8 engine) in it very easily if I want to."

The hot rod took star billing last year, replacing his treasured Pantera, for the Detroit area's "Dream Cruise." That's the annual event held for car aficionados each August that sponsors claim has drawn more than a million each time to participate and gawk.

Summer Dreamin'

"I took my Pantera...but now I know this is a Dream Cruise car," says Koshkarian emphatically.

The event draws car buffs from as far away as Australia to show off their most prized collectors' vehicles during a drive for hours up and down Woodward Avenue, the Motor City's famous mid-century drag strip.

Each year, when it happens, streets become clogged, bumper-to-bumper for miles with the creme de la creme of historic autos and trucks. Traffic inches alongfor hours, at times wending around the inevitable breakdowns of overstressed decades-old engines.

That, according to Koshkarian, is all part of the fun. It's no wonder he doesn't feel overwhelmed by traffic in Beijing.

  - Martha Hindes

Related Articles:

China West?: A Breakaway Future Still Leans on its Past
East Meets East: A Great Divide on the Brink of Healing


Ford Asia Pacific Operations Web Site

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