News

December 18, 2008

Thriving in a Man’s World

Sherry Welsh ’85 brings unique perspective to global auto supplier

By Nora Isaacs ’94

When Sherry Welsh ’85 walked into her first meeting of the North American Sales Team at automotive supply giant ArvinMeritor, she discovered only one other woman among the 40 team members. But that didn’t faze her. As she’s moved up the ranks in the traditionally male world of the automotive industry, she’s relished the challenges and triumphs from her unique point of view.

“I always tell women in engineering to stay with it,” says Welsh, named among the 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry by Automotive News. “It’s a fantastic door opener for any career you take.”

After receiving her industrial engineering degree, Welsh earned an M.B.A. from University of South Carolina. For 20 years, she worked her way up at Robert Bosch LLC, a global automotive supplier, from a junior cost accountant to a senior vice president of sales. After that, she found herself at the Fortune 500 company ArvinMeritor, where she is vice president of sales and marketing for the Light Vehicle Systems (LVS) business group, responsible for $2.4 billion in sales while managing salespeople around the globe and leading LVS global sales and marketing strategy.

Welsh believes that being in the minority gives her an edge. She points to that much-discussed ability of females to multitask. Whether it’s a customer with a complaint, a quality problem at the plant, or an issue with a delivery, she feels completely confident stepping into a new role. “A lot of men in the industry have tunnel vision and focus on the one thing that is their responsibility—and that’s it. Women do a lot of cross-functional activity, and so people start to include you more often.”

A new assignment for Robert Bosch in Stuttgart, Germany, was a case in point. Her arrival was greeted with less than enthusiasm by her six German employees. “Several of them thought they should’ve had my job,” she recalls. “Not to mention the fact that I didn’t speak German.” She went to work figuring out each person’s working style, learned the language, and enlisted her employees’ help along the way. “At the end of three years, they didn’t want me to leave,” she says. “They appreciated the new perspective.”

Her chosen industry has given her a global understanding of her work— and the world. As head of global sales, she travels internationally once a month. Sixty-five people report to her from all corners of the world, including China, Japan, Korea, India, Mexico, Europe, and South America. “They are really refreshing. They all bring cultural nuance to our global team meetings.”

Because of the geographic diversity, challenges do arise with communication. For instance, at times she has given direction to a colleague in Brazil, only to discover that the person on the other end has done nothing—or the exact opposite. But she says that as a woman, she has an innate sensitivity to communication challenges. Thus, she’s learned to mitigate such language snafus by having the person on the other end explain the direction back to her. “A typical male engineer would say that it’s black and white, while women usually have a little more sensitivity and want to make sure we talk in the same language.”

Welsh, a single mother of an eight-year-old son, has an optimistic flair and a zest for new learning experiences. On the flip side, she relishes her role in teaching others: “My dream was always to be a teacher,” she says, but her parents discouraged her, steering her toward engineering. Today, her dream has come to pass as she serves as a mentor and coach to others. “I love helping new people that don’t have a lot of experience yet. So as a leader in the organization, I can be a teacher now.”

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