Cadillac’s global chief marketing officer Deborah Wahl credits her career success to lessons learned at Cranbrook Schools.
By Melissa Burden
Photography by Brett Mountain
Deborah Wahl hasn’t had a typical marketing career path going from “patties to Caddies,” she says, quoting a recent summary of her career.
She’s followed her curiosities and passions, moving from Gore-Tex manufacturing to the auto industry, then home building and fast food, and now has driven back into the fast-changing auto industry.
“I’ve met the most amazing people; I’ve learned so much,” Wahl says. “Every single assignment has helped me personally grow.”
A Bloomfield Hills native, Wahl, 55, this year joined General Motors Co.’s Cadillac luxury make as its global chief marketing officer — a job she described as her “next dream opportunity.” At Cadillac, she is responsible for strategic messaging for the brand that’s not only going through a product transformation, but is also reinventing its image.
“It’s another iconic American brand, so wonderful, so strong, that is obviously going through that evolution that a lot of legacy brands go through. They have to keep evolving to stay current with the experience and their products,” she says. “I looked at what the GM team has done to support that … and their vision is I believe spot on. And I wanted to be part of that.”
Wahl, described by people who have worked with her as a “change agent,” most recently served three years as chief marketing officer for McDonald’s. She led the marketing for McDonald’s All Day Breakfast Menu and brought in more responsibly sourced food such as antibiotic-free chicken and cage-free eggs. And last year, she joined the boards of Groupon and Mediaocean, a media software company.
While Cadillac’s headquarters are in New York City, Wahl is excited to be back in Detroit more often. She has roots in the Birmingham-Bloomfield area and with Cranbrook. She’s an alum, new member of Cranbrook Schools’ Board of Governors and her son, Alexander Meyer, 15, is heading into his sophomore year at the prestigious institution.
While at Cranbrook, Wahl received advice that has guided her ever since. The lecturer said, “ ‘The whole point of life is to find your joie de vivre, your joy in life, and make sure that you pursue that to have the most fulfilling life,’ ” Wahl recalls. “Even as an eighth-grader, that stuck with me and sort of formulated everything. So that’s what I’m always looking for and finding.”
After graduating from Wellesley College and The Wharton School and Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, Wahl took a job in Paris working for W.L. Gore & Associates Inc. She worked on launching a new product in France to help people with allergies to dust mites. She then landed at Ford Motor Co. where she worked in marketing in São Paulo, Brazil, and later with Mazda and the Lincoln and Mercury brands.
Wahl brought new ideas into Brazil such as a test-drive program and marketing geared toward women, which helped boost Ford’s market share in the country, says Dominic DiMarco, president of the Cranbrook Educational Community, who worked with Wahl at Ford in the 1990s.
DiMarco, who was Ford’s chief financial officer in South America while Wahl worked for Ford in Brazil, describes Wahl as “one of the most creative marketing people I’ve ever met.”
After six years with Ford, Wahl was recruited to join Toyota marketing. She later became vice president of marketing for the Lexus luxury brand and in 2007 took a job with Chrysler as chief marketing officer of the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands.
The move from California to Michigan allowed her son to attend Cranbrook’s Brookside Lower School, a dream she had for her child. Her tenure at Chrysler was shortened due to the recession that deeply hit the auto industry and Chrysler filing for bankruptcy.
In 2009, Wahl took a job as the first chief marketing officer of home building company PulteGroup Inc. She found it challenging, and it required her to get more innovative and “dive really deep into different ways of connecting with customers,” she says.
Janice Rosenhaus, CEO of Harris Marketing Group in Birmingham, worked with Wahl while she was at Chrysler. Rosenhaus calls Wahl a “great leader” and “innovative trailblazer.”
“Deborah is extremely knowledgeable about technology and data as well as traditional media. In meetings, she was always open to new perspectives and ideas, which allowed her to have tremendous success and loyalty from co-workers and friends,” Rosenhaus says.
Wahl has turned to Ann Arbor psychologist Harry Cohen, a longtime management consultant and executive coach, for advice over the years on how to handle the high-stakes corporate world.
Cohen, who met Wahl while she worked for Lincoln, describes Wahl as a risk-taker.
“She’s courageous in the ‘why don’t we do something different or more powerful, effective or long-lasting.’ In all of her strategies, she’s always trying to push the limits of what’s possible, and I think that’s what makes her appealing,” he says.
With a son at Cranbrook and a job connected to Detroit, Wahl says she’s deepening her hometown ties. She’s even putting a stake in Detroit’s revitalization by co-investing in residential properties in the city.
“I’m a huge fan and supporter of everything that’s happening in Detroit,” she says. “And I was looking for ways to get back (and) be much more involved with Detroit and in the area.”