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How I Made It: Frank Saucedo, GM car-design studio chief

As a child in Alhambra, Frank Saucedo loved drawing and cars. Having seized opportunities that took him to Europe and back, he's now in charge of a studio that designs vehicles and develops new technologies.

January 30, 2011|By Nathan Olivarez-Giles, Los Angeles Times
  • Frank Saucedo says the way to have a successful career is to seize opportunities even if they are intimidating.
Frank Saucedo says the way to have a successful career is to seize opportunities… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Frank Saucedo is director of General Motors Co.'s Advanced Design Studio in North Hollywood, one of 10 the automaker has worldwide. The 49-year-old lives in Westlake Village with his wife, Regina, and their two teenage sons.

A family thing: Saucedo said his earliest memories are filled with drawing and working on cars. Armed with a pencil, the Alhambra native drew just about anything he saw, usually on the blank side of blue invoices his father would bring home from his job as an industrial tool salesman.

He often spent time at his grandfather's East Los Angeles home. "I remember going there as a kid and my dad showing me where he and his brother used to work on cars in the '50s," he said. "It's in the family, in the blood, a little bit hard to get away from."

Saucedo was also "pretty shy" and spent most of his free time in the garage tinkering with cars. "Other people would always be interested in finding the next great girl, but I was always interested in working on a car," he said.

Two interests combine: Saucedo didn't realize auto design was a career option until he visited Art Center College of Design in Pasadena at the urging of his teacher at San Gabriel High School. "I walked into the big presentation room in Art Center and these guys were doing full-size drawings of cars, and I said, 'I want to do that.' "

After high school he took as many classes as he could, day and night, at Pasadena City College, East Los Angeles College and Art Center, while also working at auto parts stores.

European experience: After graduating from Art Center with a degree in industrial design, he got job offers from Chrysler in Detroit and from GM's Opel division in Europe. Saucedo was leaning toward choosing Chrysler because it was in the U.S. He didn't want to move overseas and learn a new language.

But Chris Bangle, who was an Opel designer at the time and later became head of design at BMW, took him to dinner with other Opel designers. "There was Taiwanese designers, Americans, German, Japanese — it was such a mix of people," Saucedo said. "I was a little younger but we were all around the same age and it felt the most comfortable."

He also got a nudge from his then-girlfriend, Regina, who had lived in Italy while in college. "If it wasn't for that dinner and for my girlfriend, who became my wife, I probably wouldn't have taken that job," he said.

The decision changed his life. "Living in Europe, traveling, seeing other cultures and types of cars — it changed my perspective on what design is and just about everything."

Coming home: Saucedo worked at Opel and then Volkswagen in Germany for 10 years before he returned to California to work at Volkswagen's design center in Simi Valley. About 11 years ago, Saucedo got an unexpected phone call from his former boss at Opel, Wayne Cherry, who was looking for someone to open and run a GM design center in Southern California. "I was very reluctant because I was very happy at Volkswagen and I loved it, and I was a bit scared again," he said.

Regina again gave him the push he needed. "She said to me, 'When are you going to get an opportunity to open a studio?' And it was true. Once again, I was very lucky she talked me into it."

Dream job: Saucedo is in charge of developing new technologies for GM, designing concept cars and production vehicles. He has 52 designers and engineers reporting to him at the studio, which has worked on the Chevy Borrego concept car and the Pontiac Solstice convertible.

"Here in this studio I'm it, and it's made me confront that old shy kid from Alhambra more," he said. "[Former GM Vice Chairman] Bob Lutz used to say, 'Often wrong, never in doubt,' and I've tried to live that. Make a decision, don't waver. If it's wrong, readjust, but you can't doubt yourself, and that's something I work on every day."

Going for it: Saucedo, who had difficulty in school because of dyslexia, said the way to have a successful career is to take opportunities even if they are intimidating.

"If I hadn't taken the opportunities I've had, I wouldn't have gotten to speak in an MIT class with Frank Gehry or work with Jay Leno" on a jet-powered concept car, he said. "I look back and I say, 'God, I did that.' Who would have ever thought a kid from Alhambra, slightly dyslexic, struggled through school but had a passion for art and a passion for mechanical stuff, would end up giving a lecture at MIT?"

nathan.olivarezgiles@latimes.com

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