An Interview With Mike Cairns - Reinventing Ram
Director Ram Truck Engineering
A car guy almost from birth, Mike Cairns was born and raised in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and earned his mechanical engineering degree from Western Michigan University in 1985. He went to work for Chrysler two weeks out of school, and in 1991, he added an MBA from Wayne State University.
It didn’t hurt that he grew up with a father working for Chrysler. “I was always into whatever dad was bringing home,” he says. “When I got my driver’s license, I bought a ’65 Ford Thunderbird and went to work on it. I had taken auto shop in high school and made friends with some other gearheads, so we all learned about automobiles wrenching on each other’s cars. It was a lot of fun.”
His first job was in impact test and development, with passive restraints and air bags. “I was there from the genesis of the first airbag program at Chrysler, doing the tests, analyzing the results, and deciding the next steps. For a young engineer, that was awesome.” From that beginning, Cairns rose through the Chrysler Engineering ranks, eventually to this job in 2008.
"“Before our split of Ram brand, we were not shopped or even considered by a vast majority of truck buyers.”"
TT: What is your product philosophy?
MC: Number one is assessing customers’ needs, wants, and desires. You have to meet your customers’ needs and make them happy. One of the strengths of our team is that our Ram product-planning group and my group work side by side. We’re friends; we hang out together; and we do research together.
Your truck share has more than doubled since the creation of your Ram brand in 2009. Why are your trucks doing so well and stealing sales from competitors?
Before our split of Ram brand, we were not shopped or even considered by a vast majority of truck buyers. Dodge trucks were perceived as a Third place, discount, maybe lower quality, and we couldn’t get anybody to even come in and look at them. The 2009 Ram program was hatched in the old company by guys who had risen to top management ranks at Chrysler, namely Scott Kunselman (who had my job at the time), Joe Veltri, and Ralph Gilles. They did a lot of research. They determined that to get customers to come in and shop us, we needed some dramatic changes, and they pushed really hard for the right things. We needed some unique features and to be better than the other guys.
The biggest thing was the link coil rear suspension. One of the wants we saw in the market was that people were using them more as personal vehicles and wanted them smoother and quieter with better ride and handling, so that was a clear winner. They also invented the side-storage Ram Box. Both of those were to attract people to our dealers to check out our trucks. And Ralph Gilles did a brilliant job on the styling. It’s a beautiful truck, and we did a big upgrade in the interior.
We got a lot of accolades when we launched it, but our timing could not have been worse—right into the teeth of the recession. And there were a lot of concerns about where Chrysler would end up, so we still were not getting many shoppers. Then we stood the Ram brand out; we had a huge improvement in advertising and marketing; and we worked with the dealers to improve sales training and service. Bob Hegbloom instituted customer advocates who go out and train the dealers.
Then in 2013, we made more major upgrades, brought in more innovations (including air suspension and the Uconnect system), and upgraded the interior again, plus a big focus on fuel economy with our Pentastar V-6 coupled with the eight-speed transmission for 25 mpg highway. Then we followed that up the next year with the EcoDiesel, which is getting phenomenal acclaim and sales.
Has the name change helped in changing the image?
Without question. I was skeptical at first because I love Dodge trucks, but it made a profound difference internally, because we had dedicated people doing trucks, not Dodge people doing cars and trucks. And I think externally it has helped us break free of the old Dodge truck that was tough and durable but cheap and inexpensive and not top-quality.
The rear coil springs are great for unloaded ride, but don’t they sacrifice some capability?
There is absolutely no limitation to payload or towing, zero compromise of capability, due to coil springs. The spring rate is key, and we could have set that to be anything we wanted for the payload we wanted. The only reason we have not gone after best-in-class towing or payload in the ½-ton market is because our customers do not ask for that. Our trucks go up to a 10,600-pound tow rating, but if you’re towing a trailer over 10,000 pounds, you should be buying a heavy-duty truck. It’s a better tool—the right tool for the job.
Ford is doing aluminum-body F-150s, and GM has their new midsize pickups. Will all truck makers eventually go to smaller trucks, aluminum bodies, and light-duty pickup diesels to meet Cafe?
It is interesting that each of us has gone in a different direction. Weight is certainly is a big part of vehicle efficiency, and we’re all working on weight reduction, but you don’t have to go all aluminum to get there. Aluminum can be a good solution in the right places, but there are also a lot of great solutions in high-strength steel that we are looking at and working on. You also need powertrain efficiency, and aerodynamics is a very big piece, and we have best-in-class aero.
What are you most proud of with the Ram program?
The reputation and the sales success, which are tied together. The reputation of the Ram brand is to the point where our competitors are benchmarking us, and we’ve enjoyed tremendous sales success.
Anything you would do differently?
Probably number one is that we had talked about doing a diesel several years before we did and couldn’t quite get a business case figured out, so I wish we had done that earlier. What made it work was the partnership with Fiat and the combined program with the Grand Cherokee, which helps spread the development cost over two programs instead of just one.