Maureen Kempston Darkes Thinks Globally, Acts Locally

By Jessica Rao

Maureen Kempston Darkes has done something that few executives of American car companies have been able to do as of late: turn a profit. As the highest-ranking woman in the auto industry and one of few female executives in a male-dominated industry, the President of General Motors Latin American, Africa and Middle East (GM LAAM) and GM Group VP  runs a region known for rocky economies, unstable governments and a lack of acceptance for women in power. 

Kempston Darkes oversees one of the corporation’s four regional business units with a territory spanning 10 time zones, three continents and approximately 33,000 people. In this diverse market place, made up entirely of emerging markets, GM-LAAM sells vehicles under the Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Hummer, Isuzu, Opel, Saab and Suzuki brands.

Since she assumed this post in 2002, Kempston Darkes has increased market share, and in five years has doubled sales throughout the region. “GM sales in the LAAM region are firing on all cylinders,” she enthused, “and over the next 2 to 5 years we want to see our numbers increase, especially in markets where GM products are relatively new.”  And in their 100th anniversary year, she appears right on target. No wonder she’s a member of the General Motors Automotive Strategy Board, How is Kempston Darkes getting the results that other Detroit executives would die for? By recognizing that each of her markets is different and responding to the region’s diversity by giving each country exactly what it needs.

“My operations mirror the market we are serving. We have a lot talent on the ground and our managing directors know their countries and understand their customers. We develop local nationals to run our businesses.”
While the end product is sometimes the same, “how we market the vehicles in each country is different. In some countries, we are the market leader and the challenge is defending our turf. In others, where we may have recently returned. the challenge is growth.  Some markets are single and others are multi brand. In some countries, we manufacture and sell locally and in others, we import.” On the other hand, Kempston Darkes says that all the countries in her region share some similarities.

There is no typical work week for Kempston Darkes, whose headquarters office   is strategically positioned at the gateway to Latin America in Miramar, Florida. She is responsible for infrastructure to handle capacity requirements, logistics of shipping parts and vehicles, structural costs, market planning (some markets aren’t as stable as others) and the training of qualified, knowledgeable service and sales representatives in their markets. Much of her time is spent either on a plane or meeting with partners, consumers and government officials from their markets.

She believes in the political process and collaborative effort, meeting frequently with government leaders to hear about issues confronting their societies. “It is essential to understand their perspectives to create real value for them and for us.  The world has a number of challenges, but we have to work as one global community – politicians, business people, educators – to develop solutions to issues. Strong relationships between business and government are essential in developing opportunities for growth around the world. Often governments will seek our advice on how to grow the automotive business in their economies.”

Kempston Darkes attributes her success to hard work and education, but feels    her appetite for risk has given her the edge. To other women achievers, she advises, “Be willing to take chances and get out of your comfort zone.  To break through the glass ceiling, you first need to break through a few walls.”

Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Kempston Darkes was the youngest of three children and the only girl. Her parents were Irish immigrants and travelled back “home” quite a bit. Of being the “baby girl”, she said, “it was wonderful. I was spoiled.”

Things changed dramatically for her family with the death of her father when she was twelve. Her mother, who had been home with the children, went to work as a secretary at a bank.   Kempston Darkes reflects on that time:  “My mother was the most determined, most optimistic person. She believed that you could accomplish whatever you willed yourself to accomplish.  She raised three children on her own, and we all went to university -- one brother is a doctor, the other a dentist and I graduated from law school. She was the greatest motivating force for my brothers and me.”

“Be willing to take chances
and get out of your comfort zone. 
To break through the glass ceiling,
you first need to
break through a few walls.”

Kempston Darkes attended University of Toronto and received her Bachelor of Arts in history and political science. After graduation, she considered becoming a history teacher, but instead went to University of Toronto Law School and got her law degree. It was there that she met her husband, Larry, a lawyer focusing on municipal law.

They married in 1976, a year after Kempston Darkes joined the legal department at General Motors of Canada Limited.  Four years later, she became Assistant Counsel at the company.

Kempston Darkes said one of the greatest leaps of her career came in the mid 1980s when she opted to leave her legal job and enter a much broader business environment. She moved to the GM Treasurer’s Office in New York City – a very different environment and job. There she gained a much global view. “In each new role  I’ve undertaken, I’ve gained huge insight into business and have been able to apply it to other opportunities.”

Other posts at GM include her most recent President and General Manager of General Motors of Canada Limited (GMCL) and Vice President of General Motors Corporation, from 1994 to 2001. Looking back to her rise through the organization, Kempston Darkes  wishes she had done a better job with work life balance.  

“At one point, my mother’s health was failing and while we were able to share a lot of time together and talked on the phone constantly, I realized that I had missed a window, before her health had deteriorated. Today, I try to create a flexible environment where employees are able to make the right personal decisions at given points in their career.”

Emerging markets are the last remaining frontier for multinational corporations and represent the rare opportunity to sustain rapid growth. The work that Kempston Darkes is doing is of singular importance due to the persistently sluggish motor vehicles sales growth in the U.S., Japan, Europe and other mature economies.  However, she is a broad thinker and thus not singularly focused on her region. Recently, she spoke at Cambridge University in England on the impact of globalization in business, energy and environmental issues. The audience was made up of leading judiciary and legal practitioners from around the world.

“The auto industry is fascinating, with many challenges and opportunities,” she said, “But the real excitement is in the future – with advance propulsion and energy diversity being key issues that matter to everyone around the world.”  

Earlier this year, Kempston Darkes was elected to the board of directors of Brookfield, a Global Asset Management Company. She is also a director of Canadian National Railway Company and The Thomson Corporation, serves on the University of Toronto President’s International Alumni Council, and is an Advisory Board member of Women’s College Hospital Foundation.

Expect Maureen Kempston Darkes to be among the thought leaders  informing the future of our environment.