Full Speed Ahead

The always-revved-up Isela Costantini is making inroads as the first female president and managing director for GM Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Learn how she fought for—and won—production of the new global Chevy vehicle.

“To convince corporate GM to put that dollar in your market, you had to either you convince them that you’re going to make more money, or that in the long term it’s the best business decision.” Isela Costantini, President & Managing Director, GM Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay (Photo: GM Argentina)

In late February 2012, General Motors announced it would hire 600 workers to form a third shift in its Argentina plant. The news raced through the local press, punctuated with photos of the president of Argentina celebrating the jobs alongside GM’s president of Argentina. It was a welcome announcement for a country entrenched in economic woes, where hundreds of new jobs represented a sunny patch of hope after a long gray streak.

That same week, Isela Costantini became the president and managing director of GM Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay—the first woman to hold the title, promoted from aftersales general director in GM Brazil. After reviewing the financials, Costantini screeched to a halt, calling off the third shift, point blank. Never mind the photo ops with politicians, the public celebrations, and the excitement rippling down GM’s hallways. “I told [my boss] Jaime Ardila that I would rather not hire 600 associates just to lay them off a couple of months later,” Costantini explains. “It was challenging, but I had looked at the numbers, and I had this conviction that it was the best thing to do.”

General Motors in Argentina

1925: GM launches in Argentina, entrenching in the market over time with a hardcore following—including loyal fans with Chevy tattoos

1978: GM pulls out of Argentina due to a hazardous political scenario

1995: The corporation reenters Argentina, rebuilding the brand from the ground up

2009: GM Argentina starts building the Agile, designed and engineered by GM Brazil

2010: GM Argentina releases the Spark and Captiva models

2011: The Cruze (hatchback and notchback) model is released

2011: Rosario becomes first plant of the region declared “landfill-free”

2011: Argentina ranks among 20 most important automotive producers

2012: GM Argentina releases the Sonic (hatchback and notchback), S10, Spin, and Trailblazer models

2013: The Cobalt, Onix, and even more models are set to come

Costantini’s decision was a lesson in crisis management, from a public relations and human resources perspective. The associates had been screened and selected. They were, in effect, preparing for their first day on the job. “I knew that whatever I decided was going to make my reputation with the team in a positive or negative way,” says Costantini. “It was the first tough decision I had to make in my position, and, in the end, it was proven to be the best decision we could have made.”

Costantini’s entrance set the tone for a rocket ship of change within her division, which includes more than 3,300 employees that are heavily concentrated in Argentina, GM’s seventh-largest consumer market. After fighting for corporate GM to not invest in Argentina’s third shift, she immediately countered with a pitch that the country’s Rosario Automotive Complex was the best location to build the new, global Chevrolet vehicle, which was set for rollout in 2015. GM plants around the world went to bat to produce the car. “Every region was fighting for that dollar,” Costantini recalls. “To convince corporate GM to put that dollar in your market, you had to either convince them that you’re going to make more money, or that in the long term it’s the best business decision from an import/export, government relations, or logistics perspective.”

Rallying the Argentina team and working closely with the South American functions (manufacturing, purchasing, logistics, finance, engineering), Costantini led the charge to create a very compelling business case for GM Argentina. First, she proved to the South America leadership why it made sense, strategically, to invest in Argentina; second, she showed the corporate leadership in Detroit financial projections (how it would pay off). “I give kudos to GM Argentina: they took the opportunity like it was the last ship in the ocean, and gave it all their energy.”

The cards were stacked against them. Any manufacturing plant could take the project for $300 million, but Argentina required an additional $150 million to modernize the facility’s architecture and equipment. Once leadership bought into the Rosario Complex, Costantini’s team launched the meticulous financial case, hinging the numbers on the consideration of localizing several parts in Argentina.

The scrutiny isn’t just internal. Public debates linger over the federal bailout, and all eyes are on General Motors. “Wall Street is looking at us, saying, ‘When is the government going to stop supporting GM?’ We need to prove that the government made the right decision by showing the numbers, and proving that we are a profitable company,” she says.

Winning the global vehicle wasn’t a power play for Costantini. It was a survival outcome. “Every job I have taken, I have never looked at just the day or year I was working for, but what’s going to happen three or four years down the line. When I was looking at how we were operating in Argentina, it was great—we were making money, but I knew it was sustainable. I don’t want to be the person whom people are going to blame one day, saying, ‘She should have done something to keep us from suffering.’”

A near-compulsive impulse to follow what she believes is right has been a key motivator of Costantini’s since childhood. “I didn’t want to depend on my parents; I wanted to make sure I had my own space. I never let my brothers tell me what to do; I always made my own decisions,” she says. She was an avid soccer and track athlete in her youth, and was the oldest of four children. Her family moved frequently between Brazil (where she was born to Argentine parents) and Argentina for the better part of her high school and college years. Amid frequent changes of scenery, she remained anchored in her instincts. For one, despite her family’s expectation that she would become a physician like her father, she pursued a communications degree, majoring in advertising. “I was always intrigued by persuasion and creativity on how to sell a product,” she recalls.

Starting out, she worked in marketing and communications for creative agencies in Curitiba, Brazil. Then she joined the ranks of the largest Brazilian franchiser (a beauty-and-hygiene-products firm) as a planner, establishing its first loyalty program. Afterward, she leapt to a sugar company in south Brazil—for the sheer challenge of marketing a commodity product. She moved to Chicago to earn an MBA from Loyola University and, by graduation, had landed her first General Motors assignment in Brazil in 1998, as a strategic marketing coordinator. “When I got the offer from GM, I thought, ‘If you can create a loyalty club for a $3-$5 soap, imagine what you can do with a car. Imagine the symbol of what a vehicle means for so many people.’ I was thrilled about working for a company that was so responsible for what the future of humanity will be.”

Fifteen years later—having passed from sales forecasting to marketing and research—Costantini has never been more invigorated. “Don’t give me something that is easy or that I’ll be bored with,” she says. “I always relate everything to track and field. Running 100 meters was not fun, but when you added the hurdles that was the fun thing. Sometimes I’ll just look for trouble—an issue, a challenge—and raise my hand and say, ‘I want to go there and do that.’”

Behind the all-new global Chevrolet vehicle

Through 2015, GM will invest $450 million to expand the Rosario Automotive Complex and to start the production of a new global Chevrolet vehicle that will compete in an upper segment, supplying the local and regional markets—a big win for Argentina. In 2012, nearly 130,000 units were produced at GM’s Rosario Plant, positioning GM as the second-largest automaker in Argentina.

The plant expansion will allow GM Argentina to add new exports and continue to update the Chevrolet portfolio for dealers and customers across the country. The new vehicle accompanies those currently produced in the Rosario plant (Classic and Agile).

Costantini still runs—these days, trekking home more than a mile from work, to clear her head and transition into “Mommy time” with her two children. Her husband, who works for GM in Brazil, flies in on weekends, when she has a no-meeting policy. “I am full of energy; I can barely sleep. I’m constantly thinking about opportunities or the business,” she says.

She makes an effort to read the different speeds of her staff so they don’t feel she is “running them over.” Her team dynamic is highly collaborative, and she seeks a balance of personalities, to counter her own interests and her thirst for risk. “The easiest thing is to hire people who are similar to you, but I like to have people different than me. If someone doesn’t agree with me, I think, ‘If I don’t have a response, it’s because maybe this person is right and I need to keep working on my idea.’”

The main lesson she’s learned, which will serve her staff on its high-profile mission to build out a Chevy vehicle: “Something that I’ve practiced throughout my years at GM is to improve my listening skills and not rush into decisions, and let people feel they are heard. You can get several good ideas in an open discussion.”

Beyond Costantini’s inclusiveness in brainstorming sessions, there’s something to be said for the blazing determination that fuels her path, once she’s set her course. “I believe that you have to be passionate about what you do in your life. When you have passion you have so much ahead of you to accomplish, because you believe in something and will put all your energy into it—even energy you didn’t know you had.”