Ex-Toyota, Dana exec Gary Convis: ‘I failed’ … at retiring

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After two failed attempts at retirement, Gary Convis is helping to lead Bloom Energy.

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Gary Convis was ready to call it a career when he turned 65 in 2007. He retired as head of Toyota engineering and manufacturing in North America in Erlanger, Ky., and moved back to California to apply a little kaizen to his golf game.

But the concept of giving up work proved elusive for Convis, a charter employee in the 1980s at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., the groundbreaking joint venture between Toyota and General Motors.

A couple of failed retirements later, Convis is still at it — part of the management team of Bloom Energy, where he is applying Toyota manufacturing ideas to the production of power-generation equipment. He’s also on the board of Achates Power, a San Diego company that wants to develop fuel-efficient two-stroke opposed-piston engines for vehicle manufacturers. He recently spoke with Staff Reporter Lindsay Chappell.

Q: I thought you retired?

A: I failed at retirement. I’ve failed at it two or three times now. It’s just something I’m not very good at.

I assumed you would dabble in consulting after you retired as chairman of Toyota’s North American manufacturing business.

I kind of got off the track. Steve Girsky at that time was president of the investment firm Centerbridge Partners, which had invested in Dana Corp. to bring them out of bankruptcy. I didn’t know Steve, but we connected and he asked me to join the board. Dana was in bad shape, and they were looking for a new CEO. We had a very good list of candidates, but none of them wanted to take it on. So I said, “If the board is interested in me, I’ll take the job for a year.”

I asked my wife, who was just getting involved in interior design with one of our neighbors and was really enjoying it. She said, “Well, OK, maybe for one year.” That year turned into four years.

Then you retired again.

Yes, from Dana in 2011. I’ve been a senior adviser for a couple of years. But now I’m employed by Bloom Energy. I met the founder of Bloom, K.R. Sridhar, who is a really inspirational and wonderful guy. It’s a power-generation company, and he wanted to transition from a tech startup to a high level of production and asked me to help.

I told him I didn’t have any plan to work again, but he’s a very persuasive human being. When you look at a satellite map of the world at night, you see a lot of darkness around the world. His vision is to bring clean, reliable, efficient and cost-effective energy to all those dark places. I liked that vision and thought it was more important than my golf game. So my wife said: “Well, OK, maybe for one year.” So it’s been two years now.

You brought the Toyota Production System to Dana. What a challenge that must have been.

It was enormous. Dana had 113 plants in 26 countries, in seven different businesses with 35,000 employees. I believed in the Toyota system and believed it would help Dana. To make the changes, I spent most of my time traveling the world to all those plants, just walking the shop floors with the leaders and talking with them to make sure they were on board with TPS. … I think the changes ultimately saved the company.

Didn’t anyone ever say to you in a meeting, “Mr. Convis, this isn’t Toyota. It’s just too hard for an old company like Dana to do things like Toyota.”?

I heard that record several times. After a while, I didn’t hear it so much because the people saying it weren’t there anymore.

Have you done anything that smacks of retirement?

Well, my golf game is better. I’m shooting in the 70s now. Not every day, but I’m in the low 80s pretty regularly. In fact, I plan on playing this afternoon.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.