- Public Relations
A dear friend and revered colleague, Tom Kowaleski, passed away unexpectedly on Tuesday at the age of 63 when he suffered a heart attack while hiking with his beloved wife, Diane, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Tom was truly a leader in the Arthur W. Page Society, which he joined 11 years ago when he was leading communications for General Motors. He served on the Board of Trustees from 2006-2012 and chaired the 2011 Spring Seminar Planning Committee. For the last three years, Tom co-chaired the Globalization Committee, working to make Page a more globally diverse organization.
I always found Tom to be creative and thoughtful, and he brought uncommon energy to every venture. Unfailingly positive and polite, he often volunteered to take on leadership roles, and when he did, you could count on Tom to deliver. Social time with Tom was always joyful. He was a man of many interests whose enthusiasm was contagious.
Tom was widely respected in the automotive industry, where he spent most of his career. Most recently, he led communications for BMW North America, departing in 2012 to focus on his communications consulting. Prior to that he held senior positions with GM, Chrysler, American Motors and Renault USA, where he began his career in 1979. Automotive trade news reports remember Tom as the creative leader who dreamed up the iconic press conferences that broke through the auto press doldrums and drew mainstream attention. Asking the president of your company to drive an SUV through a plate glass window isn’t for the faint of heart, but Tom’s courageous spirit and innovative marketing mind brought that and more to life.
A number of Page members asked me to pass on their memories of Tom.
Steve Harris, McGinn and Company, former head of global communications for GM:
Tom was a born ‘car guy.’ He started writing letters to the car magazines when he was eight years old. He knew more about the history, mechanicals and racing than anyone I have ever known. Tom didn’t have small ideas, only big ones. My favorite memories from my career almost all involve Tom. It was a privilege to work with him and be part of many auto communications firsts. He wasn’t only passionate about cars, he also loved fashion, art, food, travel and all things French. He was a trend observer before it was cool. Tom was very honored to be a member of Page and play a leadership role. We have lost one of the truly exceptional people working in PR.
Chris Preuss, Delphi Automotive:
Tom was simply one of the brightest PR minds in automotive and arguably the person most responsible for launching the nuclear arms race that has become automotive PR over the past two decades. His intellect, creativity, drive and attention to detail were unmatched. Tom was also one of the most knowledgeable and astute enthusiasts in the automotive world. But beyond all the amazing accomplishments – rising to the top ranks of our profession at Chrysler, GM and BMW, not to mention all his university teaching and consulting – Tom was a dear friend to so many of us. I’ve known Tom since the age of 16 when he worked with my father through Ford’s product and racing department. We worked together at Chrysler, GM and Ford where he mentored me through much of my career. I will miss him dearly. The industry has lost one of its brightest and most skilled executives.
Tom Martin, College of Charleston:
I have many fond memories of Tom, particularly from his membership on the Advisory Council for the Communications Department at the College of Charleston. Tom was supportive of our students and faculty in countless ways, among them his service as a mentor to our students. While all of our Council members volunteer to serve in this capacity, Tom was an especially gifted mentor, a role he clearly cherished throughout his career. His current protégé had indicated to Tom that she had difficulty with public speaking. As he always did, Tom took this as a personal challenge and worked with her to gain confidence. He did such a great job that she was able to give an outstanding presentation to the entire Council at the fall meeting. Watching Tom’s proud smile as he observed from the back of the room, you felt his selfless spirit, a spirit that will live on through the many lives he touched.
Gary Grates, W2O Group:
Tom was the consummate professional. A creative and innovative force who was always willing to push things to achieve a better result. My time working with Tom at GM was filled with ideas, knowledge-sharing, and laughter. He will be sorely missed.
Jim O’Rourke, University of Notre Dame:
Tom, as all of you know, was a wonderful guy: knowledgeable, eager to share what he knows, helpful, professional, innovative, bright, and always a good friend. We got along so well, even when we disagreed (which was not often). He rescued me from a cancelled flight to Detroit one evening in LaGuardia, found a hotel for me and took me out to dinner. He invited me to speak at the BMW Global Management Conference in Munich.
It’s a jolt to lose a good friend, even if you know it might happen. It’s doubly shocking if you don’t see it coming. Not each of us was connected directly to Tom, but virtually all of us crossed paths with him at some point. I was certainly impressed with his instincts and accomplishments and fortunate to call him a friend.
Shannon Bowen, University of South Carolina:
Tom was a wonderful champion for ethics, and he will be missed a great deal. He was always an eager participant in my research, willing to share his ideas, expertise, and experience. A couple of studies ago, Tom talked about building an ethical foundation in management: ‘You can’t separate ethics and authenticity, they are inextricably tied together. Conventional wisdom is that ethics must come first; it gives sustainability to authenticity, to protect the reputation, and to be a trusted entity. The core foundation is strong ethical behavior.’
His wisdom, ethics, and leadership made our field a better one.
As the news of his passing spreads, the stories of his life and those whose lives he touched abound.
Luca Ciferri, the editor of Automotive News Europe, wrote:
“I will be forever grateful to him for helping me become better at my job. Tom and his longtime mentor and boss, Steve Harris, allowed me to join a select group of journalists who were given an in-depth look at what it really takes to run a global automaker. I learned more during those seminars than I have in the rest of my 36-year career covering the industry.”
The very purpose of Page is to make us all better at our jobs – more effective, more innovative, and more impactful. Tom’s involvement with Page undoubtedly made us all better, and his imprint on our profession will be profound and lasting. He’s been a colleague, a mentor, and a friend. He will be so very dearly missed.
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