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Black Designer Lights Up General Motors

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Detroit-area native Martin Davis, leads the exterior lighting and design studio for the General Motor's North American division. (Freddie Allen/AMG/NNPA)

Detroit-area native Martin Davis, leads the exterior lighting and design studio for the General Motor’s North American division. (Freddie Allen/AMG/NNPA)

By Freddie Allen
Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – If you’re driving down a highway, street or tunnel anywhere in North America and you see the shimmering new headlights on the latest Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC or Buick approaching you, there’s a good chance you’re seeing the work of Martin Davis, a talented, young African American designer who works for General Motors.

Since 2012, Davis has led the exterior lighting and design studio for the automaker’s North American division, the team responsible for the exterior lighting for every brand under the General Motors’ umbrella.

Davis traces his love for design and innovation back to elementary school. He didn’t like Hot Wheels and the Lego sets that he owned weren’t intricate enough to hold his attention even at 5 years old. He found that he didn’t like any of the toys sold in the stores, so he started making his own.

The Detroit-area native started collecting empty cardboard boxes that were used for transporting fruits and vegetables from the grocery store, bring them home and just start cutting. He molded shapes with glue, tape and construction paper. There was a small closet in the entryway of his parents’ house, just big enough for a chair and his creations: interior designs for a car including a dashboard and center console. Then he invited all of his friends over to “test drive” the car. He rolled out a new model about once a month.

His father, then an employee at Ford Motor Company’s stamping plant in Dearborn, Mich., shut down young Martin’s burgeoning auto operation fearing that letting the neighborhood kids play with cardboard in their closet presented a safety hazard.

That didn’t stop him from sharing his talent for design with others, including his father’s employer.

“One day I decided to send my sketches into Ford. I was still in middle school. I found an address to Ford in some magazine and put a few of my drawings in an envelope and put it in the mail,” Davis explained. “I didn’t tell my parents anything.”

A few months went by, and the young designer began to lose hope and figured that nothing would come of his letter. Then one day after school when he got home, his brother was waving a piece of paper at him.

“’This guy from Ford called you here’s his number and he wants to call you back,’” Davis recalled his older brother saying.

So Davis anxiously dialed the number and the Ford employee who answered, thanked him for his interests and told him that he sent the drawings over to the design department, and that someone would get in contact with him.

He received a follow-up letter from the design department with some career advice and a list of schools.

The list of schools included his eventual choice. Following the advice that he received from Ford, while still in middle school he set his mind to attending the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in downtown Detroit.

After he graduated from CCS, he applied to a number of companies. At one point he believed that he would follow in his father’s footsteps at Ford, but despite earlier interest in the middle schooler’s work, he never got an offer from the company.

But he did get an offer from GM.

“My time at GM has been amazing,” said Davis. “I couldn’t have imagined it being better.”

Davis admitted his first day on the job was nerve-racking, and it took him awhile to find his way around the mammoth General Motors complex.

“I remembered sitting at my desk that first day looking around at all designers thinking, ‘How am I going to compete with all of them?” said Davis.

But the young designer did compete, gaining confidence with every completed sketch. Davis’ work began to catch eyes of the design managers and they started selecting his sketches among dozens plastered on the 20-foot wall in his studio at GM.

“The early days were a lot of fun,” said Davis. “There was a freeness. I remember doing sketches for the 2004 Oldsmobile show car, the last show car they did.”

One of his sketches was selected as the theme sketch for the car. That Oldsmobile show car would be built at the world-famous, now defunct Gruppo Bertone design house in Italy.

Even though Davis wasn’t selected to join GM designers in Italy, he didn’t sit on the sidelines for long.

A few months later, as the end of his first year with GM approached, the auto company gave him the opportunity to travel to Birmingham, England to work at an advanced design studio that primarily focused on Cadillacs. There he worked on the Cadillac Cien, a two-seater, mid-engine concept car.

The assignment, originally scheduled for two months stretched into two years.

“It was a really great experience to work on such a high-profile concept car,” said Davis.

After the two-year stint in Birmingham, the Detroit area native worked on a number of production programs, including the GMC Acadia and the auto company’s Cadillac group in China.

When Davis returned to the United States, company executives were having ongoing discussions about General Motors’ exterior lighting designs compared to some of their competitors.

Davis said that as the conversations were happening about the direction of the new project wholly-focused on exterior lighting, he jumped at the opportunity and volunteered to do it.

“It was almost like a huge experiment,” said Davis. “We never had a dedicated, exterior lighting design studio, but we wanted better lights, so we said, “Let’s see how this work.’”

Davis and his team took on the exterior lighting responsibilities for three well-known “programs”: the GMC Acadia Chevy Traverse and the Buick Enclave.

Management immediately recognized the how valuable having dedicated focus on lighting could be.

“Not long after that they made it an official studio and made me the first manager of that studio in 2012,” said Davis. “That was really cool.”

Davis said that he still loves to draw, but in his current position he’s more like the conductor of an orchestra than an individual musician.

“I don’t have an instrument. My team has all of the instruments they need and I have to remember that,” said Davis. “Now my job is to make sure that my team knows where each brand is going and understands how to use technology to create a design that is appropriately styled to the character of each vehicle.”

At first some designers of General Motors other brands were apprehensive about giving up that much control of a central element in the cars overall style, now Davis said all of them want his team’s designs.

Ed Welburn, General Motors’ vice president of Global Design, praised Davis and his team for their creativity.

“Martin is doing a phenomenal job,” said Welburn. “Lighting on that [Cadillac CTS] is so striking. It wasn’t too many years ago that every headlight was either round or rectangular. Now lighting is so much a character of the car. It really is the eyes of the vehicle. Our organization is really dependent on Martin.”

Davis said educators, parents and support groups first have to raise awareness among students of color about opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers and then help them to understand that they can also excel in those professions.

The GM design manager mentors children in the Detroit metro area and recommended that all students get focused at a young age and seek educational and career development programs that can assist them with achieving their goals. Davis added that his presence in the automotive design field shows students, especially students who look like him, that they can also be successful in that field.

“I think that goes a long way,” he said.

And Davis has come a long way, too.

“It almost feels like a dream that I have this responsibility,” said Davis. “You think of [General Motors’] history, this 100-year-old company that’s been making cars forever and now there’s this opportunity to shift focus to another part of the vehicle, a part of the vehicle’s face, the face of each brand. It’s a humbling experience. I really do appreciate the privilege and the opportunity to fulfill this role.”

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#NNPA BlackPress

NAMAD Honors James Farmer with Lifetime Achievement Award

NNPA NEWSWIRE — “I can remember at a NAMAD banquet there were two tables, maybe three at a conference of minority dealers,” he said. “But I watched it grow to the level that it is today with many [tables] and, to be in a position within General Motors and to assist the industry and see it grow, has been gratifying,” he said.

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Retired GMAC Vice President for Merchandising, Advertising and Communications James Farmer remains one of the fiercest advocates for the Black Press in the automotive industry. The NNPA honored Farmer with the 2018 NNPA Torch Award for Outstanding Leadership and Service for over 50 years in the Automotive Industry and Support of the NNPA.

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

After a half-century in the automobile industry, James Farmer has certainly seen it all.

And, after receiving a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers (NAMAD) earlier this month, Farmer took time to reflect.

“I’ve seen this industry grow – and grow for African Americans,” Farmer said.

“I can remember at a NAMAD banquet there were two tables, maybe three at a conference of minority dealers,” he said. “But I watched it grow to the level that it is today with many [tables] and, to be in a position within General Motors and to assist the industry and see it grow, has been gratifying,” he said.

Farmer has set the example for many inside and outside of the automobile industry.

He earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in marketing from Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio in 1967 and, after nearly 10 years in advertising, sales and marketing at the Airtemp division of the Chrysler Corporation, he began his career with General Motors at the former Delco Products Division in Dayton, Ohio, in 1976.

He held a number of key leadership positions at GM including: Group Director of Communications for GM’s Small Car Group in 1994; Group Director of Public Relations and Communications, GM North American Sales, Service and Marketing in 1998; General Director Marketing and Constituency Communications with GM’s Worldwide Communications Group in 1999; and Vice President of Merchandising, Advertising and Communications at GMAC until his retirement in 2004.

Even though Farmer retired as a vice president of GMAC in 2004, he remained committed to fostering positive business relationships between the Black Press and the auto industry.

“Jim Farmer has done so many great things, solved so many problems, and he’s bridged so many gaps for our industry,” said Damon Lester, the president and CEO of NAMAD, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that’s dedicated to developing strategic relationships and advocating for the advancement of business policies and practices that ensure diversity and economic parity remain a priority in all aspects of the American automotive industry.

“His value goes well beyond his tenure at General Motors,” Lester said.

“His character and integrity are legendary and no matter what the issue was, no matter how dire the situation, he could pick up that phone and call a Rev. Jesse Jackson or a Rev. Al Sharpton or someone and have a dialogue with them and get their perspective and come back to everyone else with some sort of middle ground that was fair for all parties,” Lester said.

“He has a heck of a legacy,” he said.

Farmer, who also has been honored by the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA, The Black Press of America) with the organization’s prestigious Torch Award, Legacy of Excellence Award and Lifetime Achievement Award, recalled his youth when he sold EBONY and Jet magazines and the Cleveland Call and Post newspapers.

He said that’s where his connection to the Black Press began.

“I grew up with it,” said Farmer, who remains an advocate of the Black Press.

“James Ellis Farmer is the epitome of more than a half century of career excellence in the automotive industry,” NNPA President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., said.

“The Black Press of America via the NNPA salutes Jim Farmer for his outstanding global leadership,” Chavis said.

Farmer was appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities under President George W. Bush where he traveled the world as a cultural ambassador.

A member of the Board of Advisors at the Harvard School of Divinity Summer Leadership Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Washington, DC, Farmer also served on the National Board of Advisors Development Team, planning the commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of the John H. Johnson School of Communications at Howard University, Washington, DC.

Farmer also has presented the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in France, Vietnam and India, and most recently in China, as part of a Global Cultural exchange program with the U. S. Department of State and the Theolonious Monk Institute of Jazz.

However, Farmer’s passion has always been in the auto industry.

“My career has been gratifying,” he said.

“I do remember the unfortunate economic conditions that befell the country and the automobile industry, and we saw a drop off in automobile dealers – a dropping of Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Saturn,” Farmer said.

“That meant that it affected a number of dealers of color who had franchises,” he said.

Now that the economy is steady, or some would say robust, Farmer said he’s hoping that more young people of color will look to own dealerships.

“There are opportunities at GM and other places and the time is right,” he said.

“Today, it’s so diverse. I remember when GM, Ford and Chrysler had more than 90 percent of the market. Today, they collectively might have 40 percent.”

“So, in the auto industry these days, people have to have diversity. Not just in color, but in thought because we have cars today that we didn’t have 50 years ago, and I also remember when there were only about six black dealers [nationwide] and now GM has 50,” Farmer said.

With that, it’s important to capitalize on the opportunities available, which was a lesson Farmer said he learned when he was a child.

“I am one of 14 kids and my mother and father were married for 61 years and they raised us with the idea that, when much is given, much is expected,” Farmer said.

“So, when you’re blessed, you have to share those blessings and that is just basic philosophy and it’s kind of a religious belief that I have always had during my years at Chrysler and GM,” he said.

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