Don’t ask why she wanted to work in the automotive industry. You might make her cry.
Nicole Longhini’s passion for autos is so deep she gets emotional talking about it. And it’s not the typical passion—speed, physics, engineering— that drives her; it’s how autos connect her to people, her family and to her first love: Design.
It started when she was a kid and learned to work on cars with her father. “I was the son my father never had,” she told me. “The first truck I worked on with my dad was a Chevy pick up. His philosophy was if you can’t fix it, you can’t drive it, so you’d find me in the driveway changing the oil or bumping out the fender.”
Getting into the auto industry through… art?
Often, spending time working on cars with one’s dad is what leads people to careers in the auto industry. But not Nicole. Despite knowing how to gap her own spark plugs, she was drawn to art; sculpture in particular.
She earned a degree in art, thinking she’d go into interior design. She moved to Detroit to attend the Center for Creative Studies, where she took drafting classes. A teacher recognized her talent for computers, technology and creativity, and said she should consider working on chassis systems using CAD(or computer assisted design) to design frames for cars and trucks. So, she did.
Nicole accepted a job at General Motors working on the company’s Unigraphics design system. In the job she collaborated with material engineers who focused on the final appearance of a vehicle. Nicole loved learning how this was done, the way tools and materials work together to mold design and create the flowing exterior lines of cars and trucks.
That was a bit of an ‘aha’ moment for her: She realized that tooling design was a brilliant lynch pin in auto design. “If you’re doing anything in automotive it’s all about tools,” Nicole said. “If you design from scratch and source (the materials) correctly you can have all the things you want and ultimately, have a nice refined car that’s also functional.”
That Nicole’s pursuit of art and design brought her to a career in the automotive industry created immense pride, especially with her dad. “He thought, ‘wow, this is amazing; my daughter does this,’” she said.
How do you succeed in the auto industry? Find other women who’ve done it, too
But entering the auto business isn’t the easiest thing for a woman to do, even when she’s working in the center of the industry. Nicole tapped support and networking resources in Detroit by joining a women’s automotive group. There she was able to get to know and learn from Irma Elder, who became the most successful female dealership owner until she passed away in 2014. “Irma was one of the key women dealers who reshaped how dealers work,” Nicole said. “She was part of a team that helped women get into automotive, awarded scholarships, and helped to instill confidence in women in the industry. Irma was awesome. She knew I didn’t come from an automotive family.” So, she helped Nicole to learn the wisdom of women who were already there.
It’s those personal connections, both family and professional, that inspired Nicole: The professionals who mentored her, her son, Aidan, who inspired her, her father who taught her and the customers whose lives she touches with her work.
NOT thinking like a man: Thinking like a human
Nicole thinks differently from Fiat’s engineers when it comes to considering how customers use their cars, but she sees that as a strength. “Not everyone will do a math problem the same way, but they come to the same resolution,” she says.
“I want to know who you are as a consumer,” she says. “It is fascinating as an engineer to talk to customers and learn how they use the car, what is important to them, and that they have the same reactions to things as I do.” Knowing more became her mission.
Her first observations about function came from the viewpoint of a dog owner. “I want to flip and fold the seats easily for getting a dog into and out of the back.”
Mommy knows best, especially when it comes to car design
But then, she became a mom and her focus became even sharper. “I just had a baby and wanted to make sure the car seat fit correctly in the car. So often cars are designed without thinking about that. It should never take 45 minutes to get a car seat into the car!”
But that wasn’t all. “I wanted it to be easy to put the [baby’s] harness on, easy to lean into the car to buckle him, and I didn’t want to hit my son’s head getting him into the car.” Spoken like a mom who’s been there.
Nicole also thought about how other drivers might experience a car. The hip point, the height [of the seat] off the ground, where your hips will sit makes it easy to get in and out of the car.
“Everything rotates from the hip, this is why crossovers are perfect. A lot of us are driving our parents and they can’t get in and out of all cars,” she said. And, it makes it easier to strap a wiggly toddler into a car seat.
But her mom-influenced design didn’t stop with a car seats. “You have to know that the back seat is great for families, that the stanchions allow you to absorb road tension, that you look out higher so kids won’t get car sick.” And, she asks, “how will all this effect your daily drive?”
Understanding customers who think differently, then designing for them
Her next step in the process is to get inside the customer’s view as herself: how does she perceive the vehicle? How do those around her perceive it? “What does it say about who you are what you’re doing and your lifestyle?” Many customers choose a car that defines their personality or lifestyle. “How can I enhance that,” she asks.
Moving to Saturn–yes, that Saturn–and finding out what brand love really is
Nicole transitioned from engineering to marketing in 2006 when she had the chance to work on Saturn as a brand specialist. She worked on everything from after market to service and brand realignment. Saturn’s demise was sad for her. “There were core people who loved the brand for its independence, for doing things differently, and its customers loved this too.”
“But the cool thing is I’m at a brand like that again, one that engages people who are passionate about it. They are the ones that once you get connected, you have a hard time going anywhere else.” She’s talking about Fiat.
A once in a lifetime chance to join a brand new brand: Fiat
Nicole joined Fiat when the brand relaunched in the US in 2010. She loved the challenge of being able to think about who the customer is, to get their input and once customer profiles are built, be able to match that with a car. Fiat hit the market in 2011 with the famous Jennifer Lopez spots, which brought attention to the brand. “Her awareness factor was great; Fiat went from 8 percent to over 30 percent awareness.” While Nicole was part of the early team, her ultimate role was to bring 500L into the market, as well as the very chic orange and white Fiat 500E electric car.
“Then I started working on Fiat 500X, the next platform for us. It gave us all capabilities such as all wheel drive, a higher hip point and more passenger space for families that identify with the Fiat image but need the functionality of a crossover.”
In her role she was able to both think about how the 500X would be developed for the global markets as well as for the individual customer. She loved collaborating with design and engineering and laying out what customers needed then helping engineers to understand how people use the vehicles, both as a driver and as a passenger.
Connecting her heritage, her passion, her dad and her son. Now do you see why she gets teary?
The move to Fiat wasn’t just a promotion, it was personal accomplishment for Nicole. Her position allows her to inspire her four year old son Aidan, who loves each new car she brings home, especially the Fiat 124 Spider, her most recent project. “It’s cool to have that excitement; when families are engaged it makes it easy, you have a support system.” But it goes further than that. “My dad is Italian,” she said. “It’s meaningful to be able to work on an Italian brand; I wanted to carry on the heritage,” she said, noting that Longhini is her maiden name…eyes starting to well up again.