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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Vice President, Global Programs

and Purchasing Operations | Ford Motor Co., Dearborn

Employees (Global): 194,000 | Revenue: $144B

Birgit Behrendt was born and raised in Cologne, Germany, the corporate home of Bayer AG and Ford of Germany. While she says pursuing work in a technical field was more challenging, most young people she grew up with aspired to work for one of those two big companies. “In those days, we weren’t encouraged to seek out engineering. It hadn’t crossed my mind,” she says.

Out of school in 1978, she was qualified for university admission, but she selected a commercial apprenticeship at Ford. Following the training, she became an administrative assistant to the director of purchasing and “started to take an interest in everything that crossed my desk — purchasing, parts, components, how it worked, and how I could make a contribution. (My) boss was one of my earliest mentors. He formed my curiosity on the contacts and decisions that were made, and I was really eager to learn.”

Recognizing her potential, her boss suggested she attend night school while working full time. “It was not a path I would recommend,” Behrendt says. “It taught me discipline and resilience, (but) it was hard to stick with (school) in addition to (working) my day job. But I finished, and went into material planning and logistics in 1985. Almost simultaneously with finishing my degree after four years, I got my first buying job — in powertrain, buying bearings.”

One promotion led to another, and in 1998 Behrendt accepted a “foreign service” assignment in Dearborn as a program manager for vehicle procurement operations and manager of global strategy for the purchasing business office. Two years later, she advanced to director for global body and exterior purchasing, and in 2004 she returned to Cologne as vice president of purchasing for Ford of Europe, where her responsibilities also included serving on the supervisory boards of FordWerke GmbH and Ford Getrag Transmission GmbH.

In 2008, Behrendt added executive director, global programs to her responsibilities, and then it was back to the U.S. two years later as executive director, global programs and the Americas purchasing. She was elected a corporate officer and named to her current position as vice president, global programs and purchasing operations, in 2013.

“I was one of the first female buyers at Ford of Germany,” she says. “Thankfully, Ford has always valued diversity and has given me great opportunity to get to where I am now. When I was relatively young, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, my career wouldn’t have been possible
in any traditional German company.”

She sums up her leadership philosophy as having respect for others and for the business, and “being very decisive in managing the balance between strategic and tactical,” she says. “That is difficult, because you can be easily drawn into a lot of tactical actions and efforts, and lose sight of the longer-term strategic objective. I try to make sure to balance both and never lose sight of the long-term goal, even if sometimes the course has to change because of external factors that we may not be able to influence.”

Behrendt is a strong believer in mentoring: “I think this is one of the most critical pieces of advice to not just women, but to all employees. It has helped me greatly, and it isn’t always from a formal mentoring program. When I talk about actively managing a career, particularly for females, I always encourage taking an active role in seeking out mentorships (and) not waiting for someone to offer it.”

Getting started in any professional career requires vision and patience, she says.

“First and foremost, you need to be able to clarify where you see yourself in three or four years. If you can’t answer that question, if you don’t know what your priorities are, it’s very difficult to actively manage your path,” she says. “There are points in time in anyone’s career where priorities may be shifting — pursuing further education, becoming a parent, taking care of elderly relatives. That’s why Ford offers work/life models for such life stages to retain top talent. You need to make sure you understand where you want to be at a certain point in time, because if you’re not clear about your path, it’s difficult to take support from others to help shape your professional and personal growth.

Don’t assume that if you work really hard, someone will see that you deserve the next level of responsibility.

“Women sometimes have a tendency to apologize for where they’ve gotten and feel they need to demonstrate that they’re at the right place at the right time. I really love the quote from (former British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher, who once said, ‘I wasn’t lucky. I deserved it.’ ” — Gary Witzenburg

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