Industry Vet Tom Kowaleski Unexpectedly Passes at 63

Influential PR exec had broad career, broader interests.

by on Jan.21, 2015

Tom Kowaleski during a 1999 trip to Beijing to show off GM's then-new assembly plant.

The auto industry lost one of its most able and experienced executives this week. Tom Kowaleski, a long-standing PR and Communications guru with an unparalleled track record of success, died January 20, 2015, suddenly and unexpectedly, while hiking near his Scottsdale, Arizona, winter home.  He was 63.

An automotive and motor racing enthusiast through and through, Tom started his career with Renault in the 1970s in the United States, then progressed through increasingly senior positions at Campbell & Company (then Ford’s racing PR agency) before joining Chrysler, General Motors and BMW.

He quickly moved up the communications and marketing ranks at each. During the 1990s he masterminded – with scant substance to support the premise – the rebranding of Chrysler as a progressive and exciting automotive brand both in North America and Europe.

After joining General Motors, he pursued a similarly successful corporate path, eventually rising to Vice President of Corporate Communications during arguably the most turbulent point in GM’s long history, as the corporation descended inexorably towards its 2009 bankruptcy.

Kowaleski left the giant automaker before its collapse, starting his own independent PR and consulting firm. His clients reflected his broad tastes and interests, ranging from Viking, an upscale appliance maker, to Thomas Keller, recognized as one of the nation’s premier celebrity chefs. But Kowaleski’s heart remained in the auto industry.

Tom Kowaleski with former GM car czar Bob Lutz (l), and former Chrysler design chief Tom Gale (r). Photo by: Joe Polimeni

It did not take long for BMW to recognize the unique understanding, knowledge and experience that he presented. Kowaleski was appointed Vice President of Corporate Communications of BMW North America in 2008, a position he held until 2012 when he expanded his own senior level strategic communications counseling agency.

Perhaps it is not coincidental that, as Kowaleski was directly involved in some of the most significant episodes of recent automotive record, he maintained a deep interest and knowledge of automotive history: he was an unflagging supporter of automotive heritage and its relevance to the image and reputation of his automotive clients, often in the face of opposition from his internal clients. He was a great supporter of heritage events, especially the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and the proud owner of multiple classic cars (especially Ferraris and  Porsches).

All the while, Kowaleski maintained an abiding interest in art, design and culture, and their effect on society. He became a Member of the Board of Trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and, more recently, a supporter of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

It was the ambition of this Ohio native to transition to teaching the next generation of communications professionals, and he was expecting to serve as a part-time professor at the well-respected Cronkite school in the coming years.

Kowaleski's tastes were broad and eclectic and he was proud to pick up clients such as celebrity chef Thomas Keller with his PR consulting firm. Photo by Joe Polimeni.

There are few, if any, PR experts that have assembled such a broad and impressive personal resume as Tom Kowaleski, and he mentored so many now within the ranks of public relations across the industry. He was legendary for his personal drive, unyielding determination against the odds and his focus on the ultimate goal.

He is survived by his devoted and beloved wife, Diane.

Because of the suddenness of Kowaleski’s passing, no plans are yet set for a funeral. During this time of mourning, his family requests privacy.

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10 Responses to “Industry Vet Tom Kowaleski Unexpectedly Passes at 63”

  1. Marge Sorge says:

    Nicely done, Rex. Tom will be missed. He was fun and a class act. We all learned from him … Not just about cars but how to enjoy life.

  2. Charlie says:

    Thanks for telling Tom’s story and his passion. Tom was not only a great friend and mentor but my first client while at GM. He will be sorely missed and his passing leaves a huge void…

  3. Warren Brown says:

    Thanks for the ride, Tom. You will be missed. My prayers and condolences for Diane.

  4. Scot M Keller says:

    Well-done Rex! This is an excellent portrait of Tom. His intellect, creativity and unbridled energy were an inspiration to all of us who had the privilege to know him.

    • Monique De Muyter says:

      Dear Scot,

      I was flabbergasted to learn about Tom passing away. As an executive assistant (working for him at Chrysler Europe), he was my all-time favorite boss (and I did have a few in Brussels, Belgium, working for American multinationals!). He was so passionate and driven and I really appreciated his pen. I loved to read his writing! Well, only the good die young! My thoughts are with Diane and the tough times she is facing right now.

  5. Bob Austin says:

    Tom was a class act and a fun guy. He enjoyed the work he did, and it showed. Always fun to see him and he will be missed. Condolences to Diane, Tom was far too young to pass.

  6. Bud Liebler says:

    Thanks for doing this, Rex. Tom was a special guy with a passion and fierce dedication to the industry and its history. He was demanding – as much of himself as of anyone – and he was precise and always knew exactly what he should do and what he wanted to do. He was a big part of Chrysler’s PR success in the ’90s. He will be remembered and missed.

  7. Peter Miles says:

    Dear Rex, thank you. Tom was a “rare breed”, a “gentleman and a scholar”. The memories and impressions he left on so many says it all. Everyone was better for working with and enjoying him. My condolence’s to Diane.

  8. Preston Lawley says:

    Get Job Rex,

    Sad to hear about Tom.

    Tom was the kind of person that made me want to do the very best job that was possible. Journalism became marketing on everything he touched.
    My condolence’s to his wife Daine

  9. Tony Sheffler says:

    Excellent tribute Rex,
    Tom’s insightful leadership is so many arenas of the Auto Industry PR community are without equal. His passion for adapting to the task, and adopting the position of leadership required to see it through were seldom matched in his excellent career. Gentlemen of his calibre are rare and always fondly remembered.

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