As head of design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ralph Gilles must be able to multitask like a supercomputer. How else could the 50-year-old executive oversee 10 brands as diverse as Alfa Romeo, Dodge, Jeep, Maserati and Ram? It certainly gives the designer a unique—and uniquely comprehensive—view of the global automotive market, which he shared with Robb Report from his home outside Detroit. (The conversation has been edited.)
With FCA in such a variety of markets, how do you approach a new project?
I’m more of an anthropologist, trying to understand culture and trends in society. When traveling, I’ll walk for miles in the morning, just observing how people use cars. I’m fascinated by China right now, and Europe and America are changing. The tech side is converging, but vehicles of choice are diverging.
And how do you see vehicle use differing across those regions?
China aggressively employs speeding cameras, so no one goes fast. Because of that, they have a lot of time to enjoy technology and will spend more money on it than Americans, at least currently. Also, you’re not allowed to tow anything in China, whereas in the US it’s opposite—everyone loves their toys. And Europe is banning gasoline-powered cars in many city centers, so we’re having to develop plug-in hybrids like we’ve done for our Jeep Renegade and Compass, which probably wouldn’t have happened in this time frame for cars that size.
Is electrification on the horizon for FCA’s SRT (Street and Racing Technology) division?
Oh, absolutely. The key is that, when we go there, we’re going to go there with purpose. We aren’t just slapping an electric power train in our car. It’s going to support the brand’s ethos.
Being Black, was it challenging to find acceptance on your career path?
Never. I would say I was very fortunate. Of course, outside the company I ran into issues all the time, but inside the walls of FCA I never felt held back. But there are micro-aggressions that can happen every day, and people don’t realize it. For example, I get told all the time that I’m articulate—which you would think I should be happy about, but that can actually come off as very offensive to a Black person.
What steps are being taken by FCA to improve diversity?
Today, we’re recruiting more people of color than we ever have. We’re going to historically Black colleges and, at the onboarding level, are finally seeing a very diverse mix of young talent. Our goal is that the company reflects society.
When it comes to equal representation, what grade would you give the car industry overall?
I would give it a D. We have a long way to go. Dealers are starting to get more diverse, but you have to understand that people of color haven’t had the means to buy dealerships in the past and are just now coming into buying power. But nobody wants a handout. They want tolerance, open-mindedness and opportunity. But no handouts.
How can the pipeline of talent within underrepresented communities be widened?
We have to get our boots on the ground. I have every one of my designers go to their high school and tell their story. It’s hugely effective when you can say, “Look, I was you once.” There are so many careers within automotive. We need to market the jobs themselves, not just the cars.