Note: This is a series of stories at INDYCAR.com highlighting Women’s History Month in March.
Michelle Collins is the epitome of breaking the mold.
The global director of marketing and public relations for BorgWarner, she carries herself without limits and influenced change in an industry in creative and innovative ways. Simply put, Collins is resetting the standard and shattering the barrier of expectations in the male-dominated automotive industry.
It isn’t surprising to learn she grew up with a working mother as a role model, with early memories also consisting of “Bring your sons and daughters to work day.”
“My parents both instilled in me that there was nothing that I couldn't do,” said Collins, 42. “I never felt like, ‘Boy, I can't do this because I'm a girl or I'll only reach this point because I'm a girl.’ So, I had that. I had that great background and that positive influence from both of my parents to always reach for the stars.”
Collins went to an all-girls high school before setting off for Oakland University and then earned her MBA at Lawrence Technological University. The eight years following included stops at Federal-Mogul Corporation, Volkswagen of America and Bosch before settling in at BorgWarner, where she has spent the last 10 years and progressed from a marketing analyst to her current role.
At BorgWarner, she represents a $15 billion company with an estimated 49,000 employees, spread across 96 locations in 24 countries, including China, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States, among others.
“It's probably one of the best cultures in the automotive industry, companywide, that I've ever worked for because it's just part of the culture,” Collins said. “Even when I was more of a junior employee at the company, there was never a moment where I felt that I didn't belong there. It's very inclusive, very down to earth. I think a lot of what makes it that way is that we have a unique operating model at the company.
“We call it local accountability, global strength. Basically, that means that even at some of the lowest levels of seniority in the company, you have a high level of autonomy and decision-making.”
Collins’ responsibilities also expand into motorsports with BorgWarner, which has been the namesake of the trophy for the Indianapolis 500 winner since 1936. An admitted extrovert, she keeps busy away from work by serving on the board of directors of her former high school and is also a treasurer for a nonprofit organization that supports the men’s lacrosse team at the high school her two sons attend. Additionally, she recently joined the marketing and communications committee at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
She continues to strive forward, even after the grind of years of hard work.
“I'd like to think that I'm being a positive influence for others,” Collins said. “I'm really honored I can do that because for me, it's like, 'Well, I'm just doing what I'm supposed to be doing.' I'm not thinking about how others perceive it. I've always just done things because I feel like it's the right thing to do and I want to be genuine to myself. But I do hear that from others, sometimes even second hand. Recently somebody told me: 'I don't know if this other person told you this, but they really admire you. You're a working mom, and somehow you're managing all of this, and it feels like if you can do it, I can do it, too.' And that was really profound to me and made me tear up a little bit because I'm just doing what I feel is the right thing.
“I've worked hard. I've gone to school. I've paid my dues, worked my way up in a challenging industry that I would say is still very male-dominated, and I just set those goals for myself. So, it's cool to hear that people may not always verbalize it, but that I am influencing others in a positive way. I do feel a bit of needing to respect that and just always put my best foot forward, not only for myself but maybe others who are looking up to me. I am very honored by that.”
One of the more innovative ideas Collins has brought to the forefront is how BorgWarner honors the winners of the Indianapolis 500. After Takuma Sato won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 2017, the Borg-Warner Trophy made its first voyage outside of the United States to his home country of Japan. That was the brainchild of Collins, who was unable to relish in the fulfillment of the project until 2019 when Simon Pagenaud claimed victory and celebrated the special occasion back in France with the trophy.
“We did the face unveil, which we had never done outside of the country or even that fast because we did it in August that year,” she said. “But I was really energized by the thought of making this much more personal for them. So, we're always open to having that discussion with them afterward about what they want and then, of course, what we can support and really making it about them. I felt like before it was about us, and I didn't like that. I wanted it to be about them, to be surrounded by their teammates, their family and their friends or whoever they wanted to do this in front of.
“However, it fit in their schedule, too. I didn't want to be a pain for them in a box that they just checked like, 'Oh, I have to do this in order to get my trophy.' You'll see over the last few years, of course still dealing with the pandemic, but we've done a lot of different things that were not very conventional and in the past because I've really shifted that focus to them. Of course, I do it because it's a great way to promote BorgWarner, too. Let people who may not know too much about us but are intrigued by: 'Oh, well they did this, and they have a facility here, what do they do? Maybe I'll go and research that a little bit more.' So, just putting the best foot forward for the company, too.”
The Baby Borg celebration – the presentation of miniature versions of the trophy for the winning driver and team owner – that comes for the winner the following year is also given a more personalized touch nowadays.
It all helps further root the relationship between BorgWarner and the drivers of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
“One of my other sayings is you get a lot more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, and you do things like that for the driver and they're forever grateful,” Collins said. “If there's a small favor I have to ask of them like: 'Hey, you're going to be here, can you come step in at one of our plants? They would love to come see you. They would love that.' I've been doing a lot of that over the last few years, as well. It's reaped benefits 100 times over, and now we know the drivers more personally, too, where I felt like we didn't always in the past.”
While her experience plays a role in the development of innovative ideas, Collins concedes that it also comes from being a mother.
One of the moments that tugged at her heartstrings happened during that first trip with Pagenaud. Following a daytime session that saw the Frenchman sign “every single autograph that the town wanted,” there was a dinner in the Frenchman’s hometown of Montmorillon. There Collins provided a special moment with his mother.
“I was sitting near his mom, and things had kind of quieted down,” Collins said. “People were having individual conversations, and I just said to her: 'I really can't even imagine how you feel right now. You must be so proud.' And she teared up and was like: 'I can't even explain this to you. One, the pride for my son, but then also to see all these other people that are proud of him, too. And I think, Oh my God, that's my son.' It was so cool. That's one of the things whenever we do these trips that I love to see is just that beaming pride from the parents because that just means so much.
“Even with Marcus (Ericsson), he hadn't been home. His family was so excited, and then we just had that phenomenal event in the town square. It's just really cool to see that happen. Then even to work with other team partners, like this last trip we had just a great collaboration with Huski Chocolate. They went full throttle on that trip, and it was a win-win for everybody. So, it's also creating those connections with the different sponsors, too, because when they're all-in on it and we work together, then it's just even greater.”
While Collins has elevated everything she touches, she remains steadfast, thoughtful and with a relentless work ethic. When looking at the path charted for the next generation, she keeps it simple and heartfelt.
“Work with a purpose and be a kind person,” Collins said. “Some people think you have to be tough, rude and mean, and you really don't. I am who I am, and I'm still getting stuff done. Never apologize for that, either. Work with a purpose and set goals for yourself. It takes a lot of discipline. Your reputation is one of the most valuable things you have and unfortunately, it only takes one misstep to ruin that.
“But take a lot of pride in that and develop what your own personal brand is. How would you want somebody to describe you if they were asked or talk about you? Most importantly, believe in yourself.”