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20 Questions: Ralph Gilles

The head of design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles shares his favorite things.

Ralph Giles Illustration by Graham Smith

A 27-year veteran of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles who’s served as head of design since 2015, Detroit-based Ralph Gilles eats, sleeps and breathes cars. When he’s not leading FCA’s design team and serving as executive sponsor of the Fiat Chrysler African American Network, he go-karts and participates in auto races, including the SRT Viper Cup Series and the Car and Driver One Lap of America.

1. What are you reading?

I’m reading 20 books at any given time, but the one I think is most interesting and very current is David Edmonds’ Would You Kill the Fat Man?

2. Favorite city?

I’ve fallen in love with Turin, Italy [where FCA is headquartered]. In the U.S. I like Detroit a lot, and New York is a close second.

3. How many days a year do you travel?

I’m in Turin once a month, London every other month and China and Latin America a few times a year. About 120.

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4. Do you fly private or commercial?

I fly Delta, and about once a year I get a lift from my boss in his Falcon X. That’s always fun.

5. Do you work or rest on planes?

I’ve learned to sleep. I will watch one movie, have one glass of wine and sleep the rest of the way, because I usually land and have to go right to work.

6. Who is an auto designer whose work you admire?

There are many retired designers that I respect, but right now I really like what Gorden Wagener is doing at Mercedes.

7. What’s your everyday car?

The car I tend to grab the keys of most days is my Alfa Romeo Giulia QV. It’s luxurious but capable.

8. Favorite car to race?

My [Dodge] Viper ACR Extreme.

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9. Dream car?

I kind of already own it—the 458 Ferrari. And there’s a company called SpeedKore that does a custom carbon-fiber Dodge Charger that I’m intrigued by.

10. What’s your investment philosophy?

I play the long game, and I have a lot of our own stock because I do believe in FCA big-time. I trust my investment banker to make good choices.

11. What’s something about your career you wish you could have done differently?

Start mentoring a lot earlier. I was too shy to do it as a young executive, and I think it would’ve helped me. Today I seek people out, and I mentor at least 14 people at any time inside and outside the company.

12. Favorite movie?

Senna, the documentary about the famous, very beloved Formula One driver Ayrton Senna. I can watch it over and over again.

13. Favorite TV show?

Ballers. I’m in love with the Rock and so is my wife, so it makes it easy.

14. Beer, wine or spirits?

I like a Negroni or an old fashioned with Maker’s Mark.

15. What type of watch do you wear?

I have two Shinolas, including a first run of the Runwell. My wife also has a few, and we give them as gifts to everyone.

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16. Favorite clothing designer?

John Varvatos, an ex-Detroiter.

17. Favorite outfit?

Jeans and a V-neck or auto team T-shirt. I’m pretty casual.

18. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?

Pulling our team through the bankruptcy in late ’08 and early ’09.

19. Favorite philanthropy?

There are many: Project Beautiful—Inside and Out, which is my wife’s nonprofit, and the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit. I’m also a big believer in the United Way.

20. What’s the best advice you’ve received?

When I was 14, my uncle told me to keep my eye on the prize. He meant I could fool around today and struggle the rest of my life, or I could apply myself and be successful for the rest of my life. It meant a lot to me.

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