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by Tarice L.S. Gray

Rodney O’Neal can definitely lay claim to being part of the auto industry’s innovation engine. As the Chief Executive Officer and President of Delphi Automotive LLP, he runs the leading global supplier of electronics and technologies for automotive and commercial vehicles, helping the former GM subsidiary weather the economic recession and position itself for a prosperous future in the manufacturing industry.

That know-how and expertise comes from his nearly 40-year career in the auto arena. Having recently received the 2010 Distinguished Service Citation from the Automotive Hall of Fame, which is given out to five individuals a year, it’s clear that his industry has taken notice. We caught up with the busy CEO to pose 10 questions about his career and his love of all things automotive.

1. Have you always been interested in the automotive industry? Are you like so many others who simply have a passion for cars?

I had a similar passion. When I was younger, I used to sit on the front porch and watch cars go by and say ‘that’s my car.’ I’ve always been in love with cars. I dreamed of owning a Camaro Z28 and actually did years ago.

2. What was your first job in the industry?

I’ve been in the industry since 1971. GMI [now Kettering University] was highly acclaimed and provided school and work rotation. As a result you were employed and paid. That allowed me to pay for my education. I worked in cooperative production engineering. Then I went to the floor and found my love for manufacturing.

3. How has the automotive industry changed since you got that first job?

The automobile industry has been revolutionized in terms of safety. It’s safer for sure, more fuel efficient,and  it provides all the things for freedom of transportation.

4. How steep was the corporate ladder you had to climb? Did you find added challenges while climbing toward your goal as an African-American?

That’s a complex question. One of the key things is an outstanding education. I combined an excellent education from GMI and Stanford University with outstanding experiences. Of course you [climb the ladder] yourself, but there are so many people who have assisted me. What you find is you do your best work with others.

5. As an African American CEO do you consider yourself a trailblazer?

No. I’m not a trailblazer. The true trailblazers came before me.

6.  Who most influenced you?

I’d have to go back to my father. Education was a critical issue with him. In my teens I thought if I had a $20,000 salary, a nice car, and a nice crib, that would be good. My father said I was not thinking big enough.

7. Do you mentor other young African-Americans? Did you benefit from mentors?

I was on the board of INROADS [mentoring program]. For me there weren’t a lot of those programs. But society has changed because of trailblazers. There’s more opportunity. When I was coming up, there was a lot [of strife] between African-Americans and Caucasians, now it’s more complex with the affirmative action [debate]. Success is still a challenge.

8. What was or is the best piece of  personal or professional advice that has helped you along your journey?

I don’t think there’s one [piece of advice] there’s a couple. I think it’s important to be accessible and to be in touch. Success is not defined by your title, or your house or your car, or your bank account. Success is formed by how many hearts you touch along the way.

9. What is the most important thing you want people to know about Delphi?

We are a technology company committed to safety and connectivity. We’ve been through a lot, with the economic collapse and the resulting deep recession particularly in the U.S. Delphi is a company that has gone through a lot of transformation and growth, reshaping itself into this global company. In 2005 we rotated our business foot print. Now, 43% of our business is in Europe, 20% is in Asia, 10% in South America and 27% in the U.S.

10. What is the most important thing you want people to know about you?

There are tons of decisions that have to be made. At the end of the day, I have to make the right call at the right time. That can be tough. You care about your community, your company and people. What I want people to know is Rodney O’Neal is one that truly does care, and tries to do the best with what the world has in store.

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