2015 Powered by Women

With women-owned businesses in Michigan continuing to increase in number, we asked our readers to nominate female business leaders in the region who are driving profits, adding employees, and opening new opportunities.


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 DBusiness is hosting a special breakfast for the eight 2015 Powered by Women honorees on Aug. 18 at the One Woodward Building in Detroit. For tickets, visit bit.ly/1fJM9uh.


Barbara J. Pilarski

Vice President, Business Development

FCA North America, Auburn Hills

Employees (Global):  77,800 | Revenue: $83B

Barbara J. Pilarski grew up in Madison Heights and met her future husband when she was a junior in high school, and they dated for 14 years before getting married. She earned her bachelor’s in finance at Wayne State University, stayed close to home to save money, interviewed at General Motors and Chrysler, got offers from both, and chose the latter.

“The auto industry was the biggest game in town. My dad worked for GM as a tool and die maker,” she says, “and it never occurred to me not to work for an auto company. Chrysler had an advantage; I was watching (Chairman) Lee Iacocca in TV commercials and I thought he was such a dynamic personality that I wanted to come to this company, and I don’t regret that decision. I’ve been here 30 years now ... which was never my intent. I was going to come, learn everything I could, then go work for a smaller company and have a bigger role. But I never left.”

Pilarski started in 1985 as a budget analyst at the Warren Truck Assembly Plant, and soon after took a leave of absence to pursue an MBA at the University of Michigan. Returning in 1988 in a leadership development program for new MBAs, she spent her first 10 years at Chrysler rotating through various positions in the finance organization. In 1998, she was offered an opportunity as a senior manager in Chrysler’s M&A group.
“Probably within a week of getting that job, I was driving to work one morning, listening to the radio, and heard that Daimler and Chrysler were going to merge. And I thought to myself, ‘I work in M&A, and no one told me.’ That helped me understand that sometimes big deals get done with just a few people around the table.”

Before long, Pilarski’s group became responsible for all merger, acquisition, and divestiture activities in North and South America for DaimlerChrysler, including Mercedes.

In response to Chrysler’s worsening financial position during the early 2000s, she and her group sold more than $2 billion in assets, including several component businesses. When her boss, M&A Vice President John Stellman, decided to retire, she replaced him. When Cerberus came in, they brought in their own leader for the group, but when Fiat acquired Chrysler in 2009, CEO Sergio Marchionne selected her to run what became business development for the NAFTA region.

The final years of the DaimlerChrysler merger were difficult and Cerberus was worse, as the company spiraled toward bankruptcy, a government bailout, and a takeover by Fiat. Despite the uncertainties, Pilarski never considered leaving.

“I had come to love this place,” she says. “It’s a unique culture — a very close, tight-knit group — and you don’t turn your back on them. Our leadership was offering cash incentives for people to leave, but I was emotionally attached to this company. If the ship was going down, I was going with it. My feeling was that if there was going to be something on the other side when it was over, I would have a role. I had worked for so many years to build my reputation and my competencies, and I knew I could probably convince the new people to give me a shot.”

After Fiat took over, she worked to build up the Fiat-Chrysler alliance by negotiating the terms and conditions of more than 1,000 legal contracts that form the basis of the industrial integration of the two OEMs.

What advice does she offer for success in business? “I’ve never been a political person who figures out who to buddy up with. I’m the kind of person who just keeps my head down, takes full responsibility for things, and thinks every day about what value I can add,” she says. “Every day, I ingrain in my staff (the idea that) if you have an issue or project, even if it feels beyond the scope of what you’re supposed to do, take responsibility, be creative, be strategic, and try to come up with solutions. And whatever you produce, be proud of it because it’s a reflection of you. I’m very detail-oriented, I know every angle of a problem, so I spend a lot of time on it and try to be very customer-focused. If you’re that kind of person, it doesn’t matter that you’re not political because someone will notice, you will be asked to do greater, more challenging things, and success will follow.”

Pilarski also believes in mentoring. “John Stellman, the M&A vice president, had a level of confidence in me that I didn’t have in myself. He said, ‘You can take my job and run this group,’ when I was not sure. Sergio also displayed that same level of confidence in me. That’s what a true mentor really does — builds the confidence we need to take those bigger steps, and provides opportunities where we can practice and a safety net when we stumble. I owe where I am to these two men, and I try to (provide the same guidance) for other people.” — Gary Witzenburg

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