Many of you were introduced to Wilmer “Wil” Cooksey, Jr., through our exclusive interview with him in 2003. Mr. Cooksey was named manager of the world’s only Corvette plant in February of 1993. As a lifelong fan of the car, it was a dream job come true. Last year, Wilmer Cooksey, Jr. was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Mr. Cooksey received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Tennessee State University in 1965. He earned a Master’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Toledo in 1972 and completed post graduate work in mechanical engineering at Michigan State University.
A Distinguished Graduate of the Officer’s Training School, Cooksey served as an executive officer in the U.S. Army Artillery, 1st Lieutenant. His last assignment was a year in Vietnam. For his efforts while in Vietnam, he was awarded the bronze medal.
Mr. Cooksey’s General Motors career is the epitome of achievement beginning with his first job as an assistant professor in industrial engineering at GMI in Flint, Michigan to his current position.
Mr. Cooksey’s accomplishments are long and historic. In 1997 Cooksey received the “Black Engineer of the Year President’s Award.” Also in 1997, Austin Peay University named him “Achiever of the Year” in their Focus Program. He also received a Presidential Citation from the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education in recognition of exemplary experience that honors Tennessee State University. Dollars & Sense Magazine honored Cooksey in their 1998 “Salute to America’s Best & Brightest Business and Professional Men and Women.” Cooksey is featured on the cover of African Americans on Wheels magazine as they named the Corvette the “Best Urban Car of the Year.” He has been honored as an Outstanding Graduate of Tennessee State and named a “Black Achiever in the Industry” by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Here is our original interview with Mr. Cooksey. That interview was conducted by Gary A. Johnson in 2003.
Wilmer Cooksey, Jr.: The Man Behind The Corvette
BMIA.com: How important of a factor was education in your accomplishments?
Education has been critical to my success. In the 1950’s and 60’s you couldn’t expect or dream about opportunities if you didn’t further your education. The same holds true today. Growing up I saw so many people who were not given the professional opportunities available because of a lack of education. My mother taught my siblings as well as myself the importance of education. In fact, all eight of us went to college. An education is something no one can ever take away from you.
BMIA.com: You’re involved in a lot of community service work. Were you taught as a child to be a good citizen or is this something that you learned later in life in the work world?
Growing up in a lower-income, blue-collar family in Texas, we depended on services to help us out during certain times. Even though my mom worked full-time in a hospital, money was very tight. There were quite a few times when services would bring food or Christmas presents to the house for us kids.
Now I am in a position to return the favor and help others. Supporting my community through the United Way and educational institutions, like Tennessee State University (TSU), are very important to our workplace and to me.
BMIA.com: Who influenced you the most?
Wil Cooksey: My mother always had her sights set on earning a college education. However, she was burdened by taking care of our family and working full-time. She took night courses and always kept trying. She was absolutely delighted when I as well as my siblings earned our college degrees. It was her focus and determination that influenced me the most growing up.
My wife, Dr. Elizabeth Cooksey, has also been a great influence in my life. We met while we were in college at TSU. It was with her guidance and example that I saw the importance of getting a great education as well as having a good social life. She’s been a guiding light ever since. This year we’ll celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary.
BMIA.com: What’s your position on Affirmative Action in the workplace?
Wil Cooksey: Affirmative Action is absolutely necessary. I believe that organizations are aware of the importance of diversity. However, many do not have the action steps behind it to support creating a diverse workforce. Unfortunately, you are not going to get the right mix of people automatically.
In today’s competitive market it is very difficult to recruit the best and brightest. It takes a good recruiting program to attract the talent and diversity that companies need to be successful. It requires mentoring, training and hiring practices that bring in people who are going to continue to grow and challenge traditional thought.
BMIA.com: Based on your experiences, how does someone fight racism and sexism in America?
Wil Cooksey: The most important way to fight racism or sexism is not to feed or perpetuate it. You cannot win if you use racism to fight racism. Every individual has to walk the talk and set the example of how you as an individual want to be treated.
Education is the key. I believe that ignorance is the basis for most of the racism and sexism that we see in our society. We will all have a greater understanding of one another if we support educational programs and opportunities for all different kinds of people.
BMIA.com: What was your earliest or most vivid recollection of being “different?”
Wil Cooksey: I never really realized that I was different until I started wanting to go to the movies with my friends. Not only was I black and had to sit in the upper balcony but I was also tall. In fact I was so tall for my age that I had to carry my birth certificate with me so the movie attendants would believe that I was 10 years old. Otherwise, I would have had to pay more than 10 cents to see some of the greatest westerns ever made.
It is at that age that I realized the inequities between the races. By working and being surrounded by all types of people, I quickly learned that if I was going to be successful you have to have a better understanding of all people.
BMIA.com: What would you say has been your biggest success to date? (Personal and/or business).
Wil Cooksey: My entire career I have focused on becoming the plant manager of the world’s greatest sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette. The success that the car and the plant have had – winning more than 55 industry awards – in the past 5 years and launching the brand new Cadillac XLR means a great deal to me. It has taken the teamwork and focus of everyone at Bowling Green Assembly.
Personally, my greatest success is being happily married to my wife for forty years. We’ve been together through degrees, moves, wars, children and careers. I am very proud of her and her accomplishments. Most recently she earned her doctorate in secondary education. It is with her unending support that I am most successful.
BMIA.com: Did you have any mentors growing up?
Wil Cooksey: When I first hired into General Motors your mentors were people you didn’t even know. They worked behind the scenes making sure that you were given opportunities that you would traditionally be looked over for. I began my career as a professor at GMI, now Kettering University, and teaching statistics. However, my goal was to get back into production management and to become a plant manager. At that time GM’s Chairman of the Board was Dick Terrell. It was as a faculty member that I met Mr. Terrell. The board used to come and have lunches with the faculty quite frequently. He took an interest in my career and helped me transition to a career in manufacturing where I eventually became a plant manager. Little did I know that he was pushing my career from behind the scenes.
Now I serve as a mentor to many students at TSU and I can proudly look at the careers of employees who have grown up through my ranks. It is my pleasure and greatest achievement to help mentor those who have ambition, talent and a drive to succeed.
BMIA.com: What makes the Corvette so special?
Wil Cooksey: There is no one thing that makes Corvettes so special. I could talk about all the specific reasons for hours.
Corvettes have to be in your blood. When I lived in Atlanta I decided that it would be for the best to sell my Corvettes since I had so many different interests. It didn’t take long before a sense of loneliness and emptiness set in deep inside me. Corvettes take a place in your life whether you are driving, washing or showing them. Very quickly I went to Tom Juniper Chevrolet because I was having Corvette withdrawal. He let me take a two-toned white and silver ’82 home right off the lot. I was happy once again. Since that day I have never been without a Corvette.
Basically Corvettes end up being members of your family. It doesn’t matter the year or body style, they are all special. You depend on them and they take car of you.
BMIA.com: Under your leadership, Corvette has won a number of prestigious awards. What did you do to re-establish the Vette and win these awards?
Wil Cooksey: Bowling Green Assembly has been very successful due to entire team working together to achieve one common goal. And, that is to be the best assembly plant in the world. Our organization had to improve its productivity, performance and quality in order to be more competitive. It took the partnership of the local UAW to take some bold steps and training of the entire workforce. We focused on safety and quality.
We also created enthusiasm by listening closely to our customers. We started to use customer feedback from JD Power, Corvette shows and other mechanisms to solve quality problems. It took teams of engineers, management and UAW members working together to get our quality where it is today. We have learned that if you develop close relationships and listen to your customers you will be successful.
BMIA.com: How important is diversity in today’s workplace?
Wil Cooksey: Diversity is essential. In fact it’s mandatory if you are going to be successful. Our customers are diverse just as the people would build our products are diverse. Companies today will not meet the needs of their customer base if they don’t have the same diversity in the workplace.
There’s strength in diversity, which means there is more than one way to always look at something. As a leader, if you have a diverse organization there is a greater probability that you will make the best decisions for the entire workforce.
BMIA.com: As you climbed the corporate ladder was it difficult to find a happy balance between work and family?
Wil Cooksey: Unfortunately, you sacrifice a little bit of your time. However, you have to take on the challenge to support your career as well as your family. I didn’t get to go to all of my son’s track meets or my daughter’s band activities as they were growing up, but I did go to a majority of them.
It has helped that my wife is a professor and has a demanding schedule as well. It is important that we both remain flexible and know one another’s schedule.
BMIA.com: You are a trailblazer. What advise would you give to someone who wanted to make a career in corporate America?
Wil Cooksey: Here’s the advice that I would give any young professional wanting to make a career in corporate America:
– It is important to have an excellent education. Excel in your studies and take educational opportunities such as internships and work programs that will give you professional experience in your field.
– As a student, make sure that you attract company representatives that can give you good advice and take on a mentorship role. As a student or young professional, you are going to have to help navigating your career.
– If you are going to be successful it is imperative that you have strong people skills. Essentially, all people want to do the right thing. When entering a new organization you need to be part of the team and not come in a threatening manner.
– Always show initiative. Remember, it is deeds not words that get the job done. You have to be known for getting the job done successfully.
– Finally, no matter what the job is remember to always do your best. Never let anyone see your displeasure with a certain job or let them see you sweat. Go into each job to make the most of it. If you always do your best, no one including yourself, will ever be able to question your integrity.
BMIA.com: What’s next for Corvette?
Wil Cooksey: We’re very excited about the future of Corvette both with the 2004 model and the upcoming C6. It has been a great pleasure to be involved and contribute to three generations of Corvettes.
The 2014 Corvette
BMIA.com: What’s next for Wil Cooksey?
Wil Cooksey: It’s my goal to have a pleasant and enjoyable end of my career. The most rewarding thing is to see the people’s lives that I’ve touched as they go on ahead and achieve great things. There’s never a dull moment in my life. I am always ready for the next challenge.
BMIA.com: Is there anything you’d like to share with our readers that I didn’t ask?
Wil Cooksey: People are your greatest resource. It’s amazing what you can achieve when everyone works together. You’re greatest strength is those who surround and support you.
This interview was conducted and posted on www.blackmeninamerica.com in 2003 and is being re-posted by popular demand.