DUNTON, UK - Rose Mary Farenden has little patience for those who work in the auto industry and are incapable of talking or thinking about anything else.
'If you don't have a life, how can you possibly design a product for people who do?' she says in her Belfast lilt.
No one could accuse Farenden -C-Car body engineering manager at Ford Motor Co.'s Dunton Engineering Center in the UK - of not having a life. She tries to balance her work and family with a rich diet of outside interests.
She awakens at her Billericay, UK, home before 5: 00 a.m. every day, while her two children are still sleeping, so she can read and answer e-mail. Later, the family eats breakfast together, and the kids go off to school. She finds the 10-minute drive from home to Ford's Small & Medium Vehicle Center at Dunton not long enough to switch gears from mother to fast-rising product engineer.
A proud but self-effacing person by nature, Farenden is grateful to be honored as the Automotive News Europe Woman of the Year. But she is a little embarrassed by the adulation, that she feels should go to the whole team.
After three years on the development team of the award-winning Ford Focus, the final year as project manager, Farenden has moved on to another challenge. She is chief body engineer for Ford's forthcoming multiactivity vehicle, to be built on the Focus platform at the Saarlouis factory in Germany.
And she is also serving as chairman of the Dunton Diversity Committee. Among the committee's tasks is to find ways employees at the center can balance careers with family and personal goals.
Farenden divides her day roughly into thirds: a third of her time on people, a third on product, and a third on processes. She defies the stereotype of engineers as people who sit all day in isolation at drawing boards or computer-aided design machines.
Those quiet moments in the morning make up the bulk of her daily computer time. 'My time in the office, I spend with people. That is out of choice,' says Farenden.
'Certainly the engineer's task is changing,' she adds. 'They are becoming more like project managers, system engineers.'
That means employing numerous skills, both technical and human: listener, teacher, budget balancer, event organizer, systems analyst, and - of course - designer.
Christy Greeneisen, president of Search Plus International, a recruitment firm in Farmington Hills, Michigan, USA, said women engineers are in high demand in the auto industry because of their ability to handle a variety of tasks and because of their extra sensitivity to customer issues.
Farenden has gone through a smorgasbord of different jobs to get where she is. While still studying mechanical engineering at university, she worked part time in Ford's engine lab at Dunton. She later joined Ford as a powertrain engineer, working on shortening powertrain development cycles. In 1992, she became manager of the European quality office for the company.
It was through her different experiences in the quality area that Farenden gained her finely-tuned ear for customer feedback, says Al Kammerer, Ford Focus vehicle line director and Farenden's boss during that project.
'She led the marketing research effort to understand customer wants and desires that helped set up a lot of targets for the program,' says Kammerer. 'She was responsible as project manager for working on equipment packages. She could deliver combinations of products to meet customer needs.'
Farenden says one of the biggest challenges is translating the voice of the customer quickly, in a way that is useful to the development team.
'That is a competitive advantage at the end of the day,' she says.
During development of the Focus, Ford conducted a series of rapid-fire clinics with customers in six different countries. Farenden attended all those sessions and went along with customers on test drives.
During the clinics, customers were videotaped interacting with each other and with cars, sometimes their own cars. Farenden gathered all the tapes, returned to Dunton and edited them down so they could be viewed later by engineers there.
'We couldn't take all the engineers to the customer, so we brought the customer to the engineers,' she says. 'Our objective was to watch the customer, watch what they touched and how they operated.'
According to Kammerer, Farenden 'was very much in a teaching role to help educate all of us, me included, about what customers' needs are and how to accomplish the proper design.' The research yielded some industry firsts for the Focus. Farenden is particularly proud of the rear hatch release, positioned on the dashboard between the driver and the door.
Those parts of the job involving people give her the greatest satisfaction. Farenden clearly relishes talking about the Focus. She loves talking to customers and working as part of a team trying to translate those conversations into metal.
'I subscribe to the view that says if the people are fulfilled and happy, you'll get a better product,' says Farenden.
Outside work, Farenden finds her own fulfilment in a variety of activities. 'I'm a firm believer in working hard and playing hard,' she says.
Of all her extracurricular pursuits, she enjoys sailing the most. 'What I like about sailing,' she says, 'is you're always trying to get that extra little bit from the wind. I enjoy that.'
She recently completed her Royal Yachting Association certificate. She has also become a keen gardener. The family recently completed a project in the garden at their home in Billericay. They built a watercourse running from a fish's mouth at one end, down to a reservoir at the other.
Farenden comes by her interest in engineering naturally. She describes her father, an aeronautical engineer, as 'still my hero.'
Since she was a little girl, Farenden has always yearned to make things better. She had little use for the stereotypical games little girls are supposed to play.
'I didn't enjoy playing house,' she says. 'I wanted to build the house.'
She relishes her role as an advocate for diversity, not only at Ford, but within the auto industry and working world in general. In that capacity, she recently shared a speakers' platform with US First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at a 'Women in Democracy' conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Belfast is Farenden's home town. After the speeches, she got a chance to chat with Rodham Clinton.
'I think I changed her paradigm on engineers,' says Farenden with a smile.
Indeed, people like Farenden are setting the bar higher for engineers.
'We want a lot more people like Rose Mary,' says Kammerer. 'We have high hopes for her career.'
So does Farenden. Asked whether she has set her sights on any particular career goals, she answers simply but firmly: 'I don't put any limits on my aspirations.'