Collin Malcolm heads Lear’s North American seating business
“I don’t miss the lab days because I see what I do now as essentially lab work. But rather than elements in the periodic table, we’re dealing with people.”
'I believe that everything is technical,” declares Collin Malcolm, vice president of the North America Seating Business at Lear Corporation (Southfield, MI). Lear Corporation supplies automotive seating and electrical distribution systems, and employs approximately 113,000 people in thirty-six countries.
“It’s all about cognitive skills,” he explains. “If you put a glass of water on the table and ask people what it is, most will say it’s a glass of water. I would say it’s a clear liquid; you have to prove that it’s water. No matter what the situation, under all conditions, you’re really trying to solve a problem. That is all about collecting information and variables and understanding the best way to put them together.”
Malcolm was born in Jamaica and came to Detroit, MI in 1976 when he was twelve years old. “My mom came here in the sixties to chase the American Dream. I stayed behind in Jamaica living with my grandparents. But I consider myself a Detroiter,” he says.
As a kid, he wanted to be a world-class cricket player. He considered acting but then leaned toward becoming a doctor. Of the science courses he took, chemistry drew him in.
“Chemistry explained in detail simple things I saw every day,” Malcolm remembers. “You see that ice floats on water. Chemistry explains why, although they have the same composition, they are different physically.”
Malcolm started at Albion College (Albion, MI) and then transferred to Wayne State University (Detroit, MI) where he earned a 1988 BA in chemistry. College made him anxious. “It felt like I’d been in school for so long that I needed to get out and do something,” he remembers.
Straight into industry
Rather than pursuing an advanced degree right away, he went into industry, joining the research and development group at Dow Automotive (Auburn Hills, MI). He went from junior chemist to senior chemist to senior development chemist in his six years there. He also earned a 1993 masters in macromolecular chemistry from the University of Detroit.
“Dow was very good at mentoring and career development,” he believes. “My aspiration at the time was to be the director of the lab or a research scientist, so I pursued an advanced degree. Things were going well.”
Then he got a lucrative offer from Dexter Automotive. By then, Malcolm was married and a father, and the offer was attractive. “I was scared, but I decided to trust myself. I eventually realized they wanted me because I had something to offer.”
Dexter Automotive manufactured acoustic products, and Malcolm was in a division that focused on noise vibration and harshness. Dexter was bought by Masland Corporation (Lewistown, PA), a producer of automotive carpeting and luggage compartment trim, in 1996. Lear bought Masland just weeks later. “It was the nineties and the industry was going through an acquisition boom,” Malcolm says.
“In 1997, the account manager responsible for Lear’s GM division passed away, and since the company was going through so many changes, they picked a guy who knew the product and said, ‘Now you’re a sales guy.’ That was me.”
Unwanted change brings success
“I was offended,” recalls Malcolm. “I saw myself as a scientist. But I started doing the job, and the rest is history.” In a few years, he moved from senior account manager for GM to sales manager, and then director of advance sales for GM.
In 2000, he was named vice president of sales for Lear’s Ford division in North America. His tenure with the Ford division included two years as vice president of Ford’s European customer focus division. When he returned to the U.S., he was named vice president of electrical and electronics for Lear North America.
In 2007, Malcolm completed an executive development program through the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University (Chicago, IL). “I respect academia because of my love for the fundamentals. There’s a reason that ice floats on water and if you don’t understand that, you might spend your entire time trying to put it at the bottom.”
Malcolm moved into Lear’s seating division in 2008, responsible for overall growth and profitability in North America, including the management of the division’s sales, engineering, quality, finance, HR and plant operations. “It wasn’t the best time to be responsible for all that,” he says. “The industry went to nothing and it was a tough assignment, but my job is to run things without excuses.”
Moving into people work
Malcolm spends most of his time in meetings with teams, setting goals and deciding on next steps to solve problems.
“The heavy-duty technical work is behind me now,” he reflects. “The most important skills for me today are cognitive and people skills. My group is technically sound. My job is to get everyone moving in a single direction.
“I still have a microscope in my office but I don’t miss the lab days because I see what I do now as a kind of lab work. When I was in the research lab, my variables were in a reaction kettle and I was absolutely certain what they were. In today’s world, I don’t have that exactness so I must rely upon my experience and the expertise of others to create a level of certainty. Rather than elements in the periodic table, we’re dealing with people.”
Malcolm’s only goal is to be the best at what he’s doing. “If I do that, I’ll get ahead based upon my performance and character,” he believes. “I’ve never asked for a job or a promotion. I focus on excellence.”
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