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The look is interesting: An expensive striped shirt untucked at the waist, the cuffs open and touching the palms, small rectangular glasses, hair arranged in a studiously messy manner, dark pants and dark shoes. If told he was NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon's brother, you'd almost believe it. His is not the tailored uniform of a chief designer reflecting his importance. Or the contrived casualness of one asserting his everyman sensibilities. It's just Bryan. And he just happens to be head of GM Europe Design.
Nesbitt's casual manner and infectious enthusiasm are reflected by the car models scattered around the room, his growing collection of Austin Powers characters, and his invitation to find the door to the bathroom in his office (There's no handle.). He speaks in awed tones of his recent return from his first visit to the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Yet the latest occupant of this corner of Opel's Rüsselsheim, Germany, headquarters is no immature air-head. He's at ease. He's funny. He also understands the gravity of the task set before him, and the importance of design as a strategic differentiator in a common component set world. The only thing unclear is whether he understands—or even cares—that this office and variants of this position have catapulted others—Chuck Jordan, Wayne Cherry, Ed Welburn—to the top design job at GM.
"I've only been here a few months, but already I'm more into the operational aspects of the overall business than I ever have been," he says. Which means managing the Saab production studio in Trollhattan, Sweden; GM Europe Advanced Design in Pixbo, Sweden; the Opel production studio in Rüsselsheim, negotiating with the various European works councils for headcount changes, and lobbying for the software and other tools his designers need to do their jobs. Judging from the forms and paperwork on his desk it is evident Nesbitt's drawing days are behind him. It doesn't seem to matter. There are new challenges to tackle.
"You don't make the volume numbers with core cars anymore," he says very matter-of-factly. "You have to create more differentiators, more derivatives to make the same volume, and this costs more money." This has driven the industry's move to global architectures capable of supporting myriad vehicles, and the friction between the seemingly different needs of designers, engineers, and marketers. It's a friction that when managed correctly can result in creative solutions.
"Aligning design with the VLE structure in North America let the VLE [Vehicle Line Executive] walk in to one studio and see the trade-offs of doing three vehicles on one architecture," he says. "This made the whole organization more intuitive in its decision-making process." Intuition is important to Nesbitt as it encompasses the "soft" data that's difficult to quantify in the left-brain manner of an accountant. These items take trust, and trust is built from working together from program inception through to production on all the variants that may spring from a single architecture. "Instead of 'cake decorating' something that was engineered, the idea is to be integral to the vehicle development process, protecting those things that ensure the architecture renders the right proportions."
With the reorganization of GM Europe, structural barriers were removed, and brands that operated independently—often to the extreme consternation of the parent organization—must now work together, just as their American cousins do. VW and others have done it ("No one gets the Audi TT, VW Beetle and Golf confused as the same car," says Nesbitt.), now it's Opel and Saab's turn to make nice and play in the same sandbox. "You can go from a VW Passat fighter—Opel Vectra—to a premium vehicle—Saanb93 and 95—on a single architecture," claims Nesbitt. "You have to."
This is a necessity, not just for GM, but for every vehicle manufacturer. And this, he claims, is the drive behind the renaissance of design differentiation. "The challenge comes down to creative design, creative engineering, and creative execution because the legislative rules and—increasingly —the way we go about building the vehicles is similar for all of us," explains Nesbitt. "You have to show your creativity in how you approach the problem and answer the needs of the market." Those needs can't be met, he states, if you don't understand each of your brands as well as the customer.
In his new post, Nesbitt has come face-to-face with the finicky German buyer, a template for the future global consumer. "The automotive culture here revolves around creating the greatest vehicle ever, one where suspension component choices are compared to the vehicle package, which is compared to the design choices, and all are equal. It's like it's their cultural destiny," he says. Coupled with global Internet access, it is altering the buying dynamic by giving everyone knowledge of the cars sold around the world and their relative value. "The greater buyer sophistication is making design an even more important differentiator."
There's no telling how long Nesbitt will be in Europe, or whether this assignment eventually will lead him to the top job as it did so many of his predecessors. It's doubtful that he even cares. Challenged by the reorganization, the unfamiliar surroundings, and the increasing global competition, Nesbitt is busy making certain everything is in place for GM Europe to be competitive in the coming decades. The rest will take care of itself.
Nesbitt spent his early years riding bicycles through the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, with his friends. "We'd ride them off the roof of my buddy's house and into his swimming pool," he recalls in an admission sure to scare parents everywhere. However, the rides came to an end when he turned 10. His parents divorced, and he and his mom moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where young Bryan went to high school and college (Georgia Tech). For a couple of summers, Bryan and his mom drove across North America in an old AMC Gremlin. "This gave me a good sense of what makes the American culture," he says, "and why we end up with the solutions we do here versus the rest of the world. I value that." As he grew older, summers were spent with his father, a man who owned only Corvettes since the age of 18, and who took him to California to visit the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. There he met instructor Harry Bradley, who became a mentor and advocate, turning Nesbitt's study of architecture and industrial design at Georgia Tech into the art of automotive expression.
An internship at Chrysler's Pacifica studio in California followed in the early 1990s, just in time to help shepherd the Plymouth Prowler from concept to production feasibility. Graduation wasn't followed by immediate job offers—he was turned down by GM's Jerry Palmer because, Nesbitt recalls him saying, "Your ideas are pretty unrealistic for us." He eventually accepted an offer from Chrysler that moved him to Detroit and kept him from defaulting in his student loans. Work on the CCV concept and similar vehicles inspired by Renault's Scenic lead to the PT Cruiser. Nesbitt's original design brief for what became the PT Cruiser was to develop a nostalgic-looking vehicle for the European market. But he realized that the car couldn't run away from its American heritage. Looking for an iconic genre he could leverage, he settled on the hot rod. It worked, and changed the direction the PT Cruiser would follow.
He never intended to leave Chrysler despite the "intimidating merger of equals," but GM offered to make him chief of Chevy Design. "There was a huge decline on the car side, but a lot of opportunity," he says. And it wasn't long before he was asked to oversee North American car exterior design. The next generation of vehicles, including the Pontiac Solstice and G6, were created on his watch. It will be interesting to see how they are received as we await his first European designs, which will begin with the next generation Opel Agila.—CAS