Mechanical engineering alumnus making multilayered impact on auto industry and Detroit community
Note: This is the second in a three-part series of feature stories highlighting the achievements of the Wayne State University College of Engineering Hall of Fame class of 2016.
Jeff Yanssens, BSME ’83, rides his bike through the streets of Detroit quite often. It lets him see the city through a different lens than most people. Yanssens recently had about a dozen fellow cycling enthusiasts riding with him. He relished in the opportunity to showcase some of Detroit’s hidden gems.
“There’s a life-size statue of George Washington that is right on Jefferson,” noted Yanssens, “and most people don’t even know it’s there.”
The ties to the Motor City run deep for Yanssens, one of three Wayne State alumni set to be enshrined in the College of Engineering Hall of Fame in November. He has spent his entire life here and worked at General Motors for more than three decades. For the last three years, Yanssens has served as chief engineer of GM’s large luxury cars unit, and recently led an international effort to develop the 2017 Buick LaCrosse, which is being built at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center (D-HAM) and at SGM in Shanghai.
“The rebirth of Detroit is really important to me,” said Yanssens, who proudly boasts that his latest signature vehicle brought in sufficient volume to add a second shift of 1,400 employees at D-HAM.
While attending Lake Shore High School, Yanssens was good at math and had a passion for cars, but needed some guidance to find his path in life. When he was in 11th grade, mentor and longtime GM mechanical engineer Al Kron took him on a tour of the company’s Tech Center, and Yanssens was hooked.
After graduating from Wayne State, Yanssens was hired by GM and began his career as a test and development engineer. He has held numerous roles since and played a critical role in a number of innovations and research projects for GM, including plastic fuel tank development, magnetic ride control and supercharged engines. While working on the Corvette, he worked to implement fiberglass-balsa composite materials as well as the longest hydroformed rails ever produced.
Technology advances at a rapid pace, but Yanssens was well prepared from his time in the College of Engineering, where he feels students’ education and resources have long been on the cutting edge.
“When I started at Wayne State, we used punch cards to run software programs,” said Yanssens. “As I migrated through my degree, we went from punch cards to teletype machines. By the time I left, we were working on CAE programs on personal computers.”
Yanssens also fondly recalls a prevailing attitude pointed toward teamwork and collaboration at Wayne State, which are among the many principles he applies to his overall philosophy. Yanssens holds his people to high expectations but also puts time and effort into building camaraderie with his teams setting them up for success as well as professional fulfillment.
“I’m very driven, but I’m driven for the right reasons and the right results,” said Yanssens, who ran his own landscaping business in the early 1980s to pay his Wayne State tuition. “If you can’t come to work with a smile on your face and love what you do, you won’t do a good job for me.”
Yanssens loves what he does and indeed comes to work with a smile, even on the occasions when the job calls for long hours or travel. Besides the D-HAM and SGM facilities, he oversees another team in Shanghai and a fourth in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. International conference calls are frequent, and he even makes the 14-hour flight to China at least once every two months.
Having also lived and worked in Germany for three years while running a chassis department for GM, he has long maintained a global perspective, but keeps his cross-cultural approach simple.
“Around the world – it doesn’t matter where you go – people just want to be treated with respect,” said Yanssens. “How you navigate through (cultural differences) is just by being a good person. Talk to people, listen, and don’t go in with any preconceived notions. In the end, we’re all just people.”
International relations is one of many bullet points in Yanssens’ job description. Recognizing the broad-based level of experience necessary to be a chief engineer, Yanssens laid the groundwork early in his career. His versatility and proactive mindset was especially tested when the chief engineer and vehicle line executive roles were pared down to one job after the recession and downturn of the auto industry.
“Not only am I responsible for the engineering side of it, but also the manufacturing, marketing and business side of it too,” said Yanssens. “I’m responsible for around $8.2 billion worth of revenue.”
Yanssens remains cool under pressure, and despite the enormity of his position he encourages a work-life balance and a strong sense of community. Yanssens attended Wayne State at the same time as his high school sweetheart, Karen, who happened to be Kron’s daughter and to whom Yanssens is still happily married with three grown children.
He has devoted time over the years as a youth hockey coach and member of the Grosse Pointe Crisis Club, a privately funded charitable organization that offers aid to get people and families through unfortunate circumstances and back on their feet. He and Karen even drive around Detroit with $100 worth of Little Caesars pizzas every so often, passing slices out to people who need to eat.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Yanssens remains humble — even a little embarrassed —when it comes to being recognized by the WSU College of Engineering.
“I don’t envision myself as a Hall of Famer,” he said. “I’m just a guy that goes to work every day and tries to do the best he can do.”
Yanssens and fellow inductees Olga Alavanou, BSEE ’88, and Kathy Kay, BSCS ’83, will be enshrined in the Wayne State University College of Engineering Hall of Fame at the college’s annual awards dinner on Thursday, November 3, at 6 p.m. at the Detroit Institute of Arts. To make a reservation, visit specialevents.wayne.edu/hof2016.
The Wayne State University College of Engineering Hall of Fame was founded in 1983 to recognize and honor distinguished alumni who, through their leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation, have made significant industrial, educational and societal contributions to the engineering and computer science professions. The Hall of Fame celebrates the rich history of the College of Engineering and provides exceptional standards by which Wayne State University engineering students can measure success.
Photo credit: 2016 John F. Martin and General Motors