GM's 'Future Leaders': Anthony LoBy Michelle Krebs September 16, 2008
By Dale Buss
As he worked his way up through the design ranks at Lotus, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Saab, Anthony Lo proved his creative chops over and over again on models ranging from the Audi A4 to the Mercedes-Benz F200 concept car.
But now that he is executive director of design for GM of Europe, the demands on Lo are more often about organizing and motivating others, and balancing budgets and priorities - not only putting his stylistic imprints on future models. And he's willing to admit the different nature of the challenges.
These days, for example, Lo is supervising GM of Europe's efforts to establish a long-term, overarching design scheme for Saab and Opel at a time of unprecedented competitive pressures on each brand and growing strains on the parent company's financial resources.
"We have to find the right balance in investing in diverse product, but we have to make sure we're profitable as well," said the 43-year-old Lo, a Hong Kong native who began his ascent through the European auto-design hierarchy at the Royal College of Arts in England. "It's consuming most of my time right now to work on the strategic vision, on portfolios for both of the brands. It's difficult."
Lo said that GM of Europe has "started the ball rolling" for the two brands by introducing new products beginning with Opel Insignia, the sleek compact that is replacing the aging Vectra and is meant to compete in the rough-and-tumble segment in Europe that also includes the Ford Mondeo, Honda Accord, Mazda 6 and Citroen C5. And Lo is busily helping wrap up design of the future Saab 9-4 and 9-5.
"But what worries me a bit and all of us here is that, while the near-term plan is clear, the longer-term plan isn't," Lo confided. "How do we replace these cars later? What are the next generations of those brands going to look like? And how do we grow these brands in gradual but healthy ways?"
Lo became intoxicated with automotive design as a lad in Hong Kong, "growing up looking at cars and wondering how they were created," he recalled. The U.K. colony, now part of China, "didn't have a car industry," Lo said, but there were plenty of hot cars about, including Ferraris and "the highest concentration of Rolls-Royces in the world." The Lo family also included a bunch of car enthusiasts. Lo was a self-starter, designing and building his own car models as a teenager.
But realizing he must go abroad to study the field, Lo said, he selected London and, at the Royal College, fell under the teaching of Peter Stevens, renowned designer of Lotus classics such as the Esprit X180. In 1987, Lo joined Lotus for three years, putting his initial mark on a special version of the Lotus Omega "that was the fastest four-door sedan in the world" in 1988, he said. It was there that Lo also first appeared on the radar of GM, which owned Lotus at the time (and sold it in 1993).
When Stevens left Lotus, so did Lo, taking an offer from Audi and staying for three years. There, Lo worked on interior and details of the A4, including 20-inch wheels that marked a major innovation at the time. The Audi gig also reinforced Lo's connections with GM because Audi still employed Martin Smith in his second engagement there; he would leave the German OEM in 1997 for GM, where he honchoed design of the Opel Insignia.
From Audi, Mercedes-Benz lured Lo to its new design studio in Yokohama, Japan. "They thought it would be good to find someone with an Asian background and European experience, and there weren't very many of us around at that time," Lo said.
Toward the end of his seven-year tenure there, Lo worked with Michael Mauer, who was about to move back to Europe to run Mercedes' fledgling Smart design studio. Soon, Mauer jumped to GM of Europe to become design director for Saab and invited Lo to become his head of advanced design. "We did a lot of work there to point Saab in the right direction," Lo said, including the Aero X concept car and the 9-3X.
Then the chess pieces moved that landed Lo in his current position. Mauer left for Porsche in 2004, and GM of Europe's new executive director of design, Bryan Nesbitt, asked Lo to head advance design for the entirety of the continent.
"I was interested, but I wasn't sure I could handle that," Lo said of the promotion offered him four years ago.
For one thing, he said, "There is a dilemma for all designers when they're moving up the ladder in a company: You have to give up certain things, which is very hard," Lo said. "I'm interested in spending time with modelers and resolving design issues, but you have to trust your team and get the best people to do the job. You also have to dedicate enough time to giving them direction."
Lo also was concerned whether he had enough designers on the staff, but GM of Europe since has beefed up the ranks, he said.
Over the last several months, Lo's responsibilities have grown - though his title hasn't changed - as GM has sought to link its advanced-design gurus on each continent into an integrated global network, so that Lo and his peers are looking beyond just the needs of their regions.
"I need to join a few more telephone conferences each week," he said.
Title: Director of Advanced Design, GM of Europe
Location: GM of Europe complex in Russelsheim, Germany
Born: Hong Kong
Spare-time pursuits: Mountain biking and other "active sports." And travel. "We take advantage of being in the center of Europe, mostly by car on weekends - or we can take a 1-1/2-hour flight anywhere."
Business heroes: Giorgetto Giugiaro, the icon of Italian automotive design. "I got a chance to shake his hand when I was doing an internship, and right then I realized designing cars was the only thing I wanted to do."