Raj Nair ‘87 was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and grew up in Edwardsville, Illinois, a small northeastern suburb of St. Louis. His father was a dean at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, and was in tune with the potential academic opportunities that might await his son at Kettering University (then General Motors Institute) in the early 1980s.
“I was one of the kids that was always taking things apart. If it had a motor, I was interested in it,” Nair said. “My dad thought Kettering would be a good program for me because I was interested in engineering and racing cars.”Following his father’s advice, Nair arrived on campus in 1982 to familiar Midwestern surroundings and with like-minded individuals who shared his passion for engineering. Nair majored in Mechanical Engineering with an Automotive Specialty and completed his co-op at the General Motors Truck Plant in St. Louis.
Prior to the completion of his senior year at Kettering, Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, offered him a full-time position and now, 28 years later, he remains with the company as the Executive Vice President for Global Product Development and Chief Technical Officer.
“I just imagined graduating and going back to St. Louis and working on whatever GM had in mind for me at the time,” Nair said. “It worked out well for me the way it did.”
The move from the factory floor in St. Louis to a corporate opportunity with Ford was a “big deal” for Nair as it provided him with more opportunities than he expected. He hired in as a launch engineer who was responsible for traveling to multiple assembly plants across the country when new products were released.
“Having completed my co-op at an assembly plant, I had a really big advantage because I knew exactly how an assembly plant worked,” Nair said. “A co-op at a truck assembly plant and then moving into a job where you are doing the engineering but still located at the plant, I don’t think you can script that any better for a student preparing for their first job out of college.”
For the next 13 years (1987-2000), Nair’s launch responsibilities expanded from the United States to Mexico, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Turkey and many other international markets. Nair was the Vehicle Operations launch manager for the 1996 European Fiesta. He then became responsible for all Ford of Europe launches including the Focus, Transit and Mondeo.
In 2000, Nair was appointed director, New Model Programs, Advanced & Manufacturing Engineering for Vehicle Operations. In 2003, he was named Executive Director for SUV and Truck Product Development. In 2007, Nair was named vice president of operations for Ford’s Asia Pacific and Africa regions which took him to the corporate offices in Bangkok and Shanghai. He returned to the United States in 2010 to take the role of vice president of Engineering and Global Product Development, a position that has since evolved to his current title.
“For me, I think it would’ve been hard to work outside of automotive industry because of the unique nature of the product,” Nair said. “There’s the technical complexity of the product and the scale at which it’s built. Typically, it’s the second most expensive thing people buy so it’s really important to them. There’s an emotional and passionate aspect to it. How does the vehicle perform? How does it look? What does that vehicle say about you as an owner? There is an entire sport that revolves around it. I really enjoy all of those aspects and I don’t think you will find that combination of attributes in any other product in the world.”
While at Kettering in the 1980s, Nair never imagined that his career would play out the way it has to this point. He never imagined the opportunity to work at a global scale and help lead one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world.
“I was working at a plant that built trucks and that’s all I knew,” Nair said. “I was just focused on doing a good job at the plant and maybe getting a company car one day. That was my dream.”
Nair is still thankful for his experiences at Kettering and how the curriculum’s focus on automotive engineering provided him with opportunities that have helped propel his career to great heights. He feels that Kettering’s unique education model is still applicable today as current co-op students are experiencing similar successes in the automotive industry.
“I am always gratified when we see Kettering co-op students come to Ford,” Nair said. “They hit the ground running. We never have to acclimate a Kettering student.”
Nair notes that the automotive industry is rapidly changing as there are more lines of code in a Ford Fusion than a Boeing 777. Automotive companies are also becoming software companies and Nair believes that the, “breadth that Kettering has expanded into complements the needs at Ford.”
With the development of autonomous vehicles, a growing conscience about the environmental impact of transportation, evolving ownership models and a car’s ability to generate hundreds of gigabytes of data, Nair believes that the automobile industry is at an inflection point and will evolve rapidly over the next 5-to-10 years. As new technologies emerge, Nair believes that Ford will differentiate themselves from their competitors by focusing on the driving experience in addition to the technology.
“We’ve had an industry built up feature by feature but now we’ve overwhelmed our drivers with technology,” Nair said. “We need to take a step back and view the holistic experience of personal mobility and use technology to improve that experience."