Conexus sees new CEO as just the right ‘maker’

With a last name that means “maker of carts,” Fred Cartwright jokes that he was destined to work in some form of transportation manufacturing.

Over nearly four decades, the Terre Haute native has carved out a specialty in manufacturing innovation leadership for the automotive industry, a career that has taken him all over the world.

“The center of gravity around advanced mobility follows Fred Cartwright,” said John Fairbanks, president and CEO of Columbus-based Pruv Mobility Ecosystem. “He really is exceptional.”

After a long career in manufacturing innovation in the automotive industry, Fred Cartwright is the new president and CEO at Conexus Indiana. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Hoosier manufacturers will now benefit from Cartwright’s knowledge and experience. In July, he was named president and CEO of Conexus Indiana, a statewide organization that supports and promotes Indiana’s advanced manufacturing and logistics industries.

“I’ve been preparing for this my whole career,” Cartwright said. “All of that [experience] comes together here, and this is where I need to be.”

Prior to joining Conexus, Cartwright spent 33 years with General Motors. He later served as executive director of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research,  a $250 million research campus for advanced automotive technology.

The Conexus board of directors chose Cartwright because of his Indiana ties and his unique background, said the board’s chair, Denny Oklak.

“Conexus is an unusual organization, being focused on industry but being in the nonprofit sector itself, and it was difficult to find somebody who had experience in both areas,” Oklak said. “We thought he was just an excellent fit for the role.”

Cartwright “has a very keen awareness of changes and opportunities,” said Scott Brand, a Conexus board member and executive vice president of Subaru of Indiana Automotive. “I think he’s going to bring a wealth of perspective from his personal experience.”

A lifetime of innovation

That experience includes a career at the forefront of new technologies and business practices.

“Innovation just seems to always find me,” Cartwright said. “Regardless of where I worked, it was always in the area of something innovative, whether it was technology or business, and doing that in a highly collaborative way that in most cases had never been done before.”

Building a career in innovation leadership requires lifelong learning. Cartwright is a self-described “book nut” who pores over technical journals and participates in industry networking groups.

“You really have to dedicate yourself to doing that,” he said. “If I haven’t read several chapters of something meaningful every day, then I haven’t done my job.”

Cartwright started his career in 1980 at Allison Transmission, which was then part of General Motors. He worked in manufacturing as a production supervisor, then helped to develop a transmission for the U.S. Army’s Abrams tank.

In 1993, he joined the team that developed the drive system for General Motors EV1, the first modern electric vehicle to be mass-produced by a major manufacturer. Later it was reconfigured as the nation’s first electric drive system for commercial vehicles.

“We started a new industry,” Cartwright said. “The system we launched back then is still in production at Allison, and really it launched the entire EV industry.”

Cartwright climbed the ranks at Allison, then moved to Detroit in 2003 to become director of technology planning and competitive intelligence for General Motors Powertrain. In that role, he guided the product strategy for hybrid powertrains and negotiated a pioneering hybrid alliance between GM, BMW and DaimlerChrysler.

He later served as vice president for alliances and new business development at General Motors Europe. Based in Russelsheim, Germany, he built complex partnerships with other companies, including competitors, to share the risk of new investments.

Cartwright and his family moved back to Detroit in 2012. But after 33 years with GM, he decided it was time for a new challenge. The following year, he took the helm at Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville, South Carolina.

The organization’s primary research specialties include advanced powertrain systems, automotive systems integration and vehicular electronics.

“The transition from working with a big company like General Motors to working for a university—that’s a big change,” he said. “The university operates differently, and it’s even more difficult to effect change, but I learned how.”

Under Cartwright’s leadership, the automotive research center became “an academic powerhouse of automotive research,” Carla Bailo, the center’s president and CEO, said in a statement. Cartwright partnered with Greenville Technical College to develop the Center for Manufacturing Innovation, a $25 million venture focused on advanced manufacturing workforce development and research. He also built out the 250-acre campus with a $25 million coworking facility.

Most recently, Cartwright led Columbus-based Pruv Mobility Ecosystem. The start-up develops both simulated and real-world testing facilities for autonomous vehicles.

“His leadership in the automotive industry is in my estimation second to none,” Fairbanks said. “There’s nobody else in the country, possibly not even in the world, at the top of that sector.”

Fairbanks recruited Cartwright to Pruv during a tour of the automotive research center campus. Cartwright was retiring from the center and expressed an interest in returning to Indiana, where his parents still lived. But Fairbanks still thought the job offer was a long shot. When Cartwright accepted, “we were just ecstatic,” Fairbanks said.

In a news release announcing Cartwright’s new role, Pruv described the hiring as a “global coup.”

During Cartwright’s tenure, Pruv honed its focus on the advanced mobility sector and expanded its network within the industry.

“His connections to the industry are really incredible,” Fairbanks said. “He made the introductions, he cultivated those relationships on our behalf, and we maintain those relationships even now.”

Next steps at Conexus

Between Detroit, Russelsheim, and South Carolina, Cartwright was away from Indiana for 15 years. Working with Pruv, he said, “allowed me to get myself re-grounded here and to build my network, such that when this opportunity [with Conexus] came along, I felt a whole lot better about stepping into it.”

The role appealed to Cartwright because, at this point in his career, he wants to focus on not-for-profit work that is “solely dedicated to effecting change, helping people, helping companies,” he said.

Founded in 2007, Conexus Indiana coordinates networking opportunities, industry research and workforce development programs.

Cartwright works from Conexus’s new offices at 16 Tech Innovation District, an urban campus within the Indiana Avenue Cultural District.

Since joining Conexus in July, Cartwright has focused on familiarizing himself with Indiana’s advanced manufacturing and logistics industries. His first goal, he said, is to assess how well Conexus is addressing major industry challenges, particularly technology adoption and workforce development.

“We’re all in this together,” he said, “and it all boils down to a select group of problems that are common, all the way from the larger companies to the smaller to mid-sized companies.”

Indiana has the highest concentration of manufacturing jobs in the nation, according to data from the Indiana Economic Development Corp., and one in five Hoosiers works in advanced manufacturing.

“Everybody [in Indiana] knows someone who has made a career out of manufacturing,” said Brand, a Conexus board member. “It’s really kind of in our blood.”

Yet the state’s manufacturing workforce is aging, and the industry is struggling to recruit young talent.

“There’s a bit of a stigma with manufacturing careers—that it’s hot and dirty, that it’s unrewarding,” Brand said. “We’re working to change that.”

In September, Conexus will launch Make & Move Up, a partnership with Goodwill Commercial Services. The program aims to increase industry awareness of Goodwill’s manufacturing capabilities, and it includes a workforce development component.

Another Conexus initiative, Catapult Indiana, provides advanced manufacturing training for underemployed adults and graduating high school seniors.

In addition, Conexus has partnered with the IEDC to administer the Manufacturing Readiness Grant program. The grants seek to modernize Indiana’s manufacturing sector by stimulating private investment.

Obstacles to technology adoption include a lack of technical skills, the complexity of integrating new technology with legacy systems and the reality of budget constraints. In a recent Conexus survey, only 16% of Indiana manufacturers indicated that they had a dedicated budget for technology adoption.

The grant program reimburses Indiana manufacturers for up to 50% of their investment in new technologies, with a cap of $200,000 per company.

Launched in 2020, the program has so far awarded $6.7 million to 87 Indiana companies. The General Assembly recently appropriated an additional $20 million to extend the program through 2023.

“We have so many companies all over the state, small and mid-sized companies, that are pulling the trigger on investments in digital technology that otherwise would not have done,” Cartwright said. “We see that effecting change in a big way.”

Cartwright’s long-term goal for Conexus is to preserve and grow Indiana’s advanced manufacturing and logistics industries for future generations.

“What should we be doing to set the course for the next 80 or 90 years?” he said. “We may never see the fruits of our labors here, but I’d like to see that for generations to come.”•

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