She is responsible for a team of 2,100, overseeing the design, development and integration of gasoline engines, passenger-vehicle diesel engines and manual transmissions for the European market.
In many ways, its the perfect fit. Shes as comfortable talking about cylinder deactivation as she is about Italian travel. Shes as conversant in light-alloy engines as she is in Chinese culture. And shes always been driven – even when others havent shown the same faith in her.
After obtaining a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Applied Sciences in Darmstadt, Germany – with a focus on internal combustion engines and transmissions – Forst knew she wanted to work on engines.
As an only child, Forst helped her father change the oil on his many tractors and machines on the family farm in Wiesbaden, Germany. She worked in a foundry at 16 and went to work as an engineer at Opel at 22.
Some guys are car guys, she says. I was a car girl.
During her first job interview, one of Opels managers tried to persuade her to pursue a different side of the business.
I said No, Forst remembers. I said, I will come to you but I will work on engines.
She was hired.
My boss told me some months later, Rita, you were so clear on what you wanted to do. It really impressed us, she says.
When Forst looked around the powertrain department at Opel 29 years ago, she was the only woman on a team of 300.
A lot of people watched me, she remembers. After three or four years, I went to my supervisor and said I wanted to do something else. I wanted something that could challenge me more.
Forst quickly worked her way through Opel, rising to project engineer in 1981 where she was responsible for coordinating new engine projects, including the introduction of the three-way catalytic converter and four-valve technology. Over the next 15 years, she managed design and development for GMs globally used Family II engines and was a team member in the new Opel light-alloy engine project. In 1997, as a project manager, she helped integrate the light-alloy engine in the Opel Astra, Zafira and Vectra.
Two years later, as chief engineer, she assumed responsibility for manufacturing engineering of all powertrain facilities in Europe, including the engine plant in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
By 2001 she joined Opel Powertrain as executive director of product engineering and was named managing director in August 2002.
Results quickly paid off. Last year, in voting by the International Engine of the Year jury, GM Powertrains work on the 1.3-liter common-rail turbodiesel from the Ecotec engine family was awarded Engine of the Year in the 1.0- to
1.4-liter displacement category.
In June, while vacationing in the Milano Marittima region of Italy, her mobile phone rang. It was David Piper, then GM Powertrain Europes executive director of product engineering. Piper had accepted a job as vice president and general manager for GM Powertrain Europe and thought Forst was the right choice to replace him.
A week later, Piper died in a bicycle accident, the day before he was supposed to start in his new position.
Forst cut her vacation short and started immediately in Turin.
I took on his lead, she says.