July 30, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Ford's 'Queen of Innovation' helps shape F-150

F-150 program manager Alana Strager helped design the aluminum bodied truck. 'Innovation's about making things,' Strager said. 'We have to look beyond what exists. We can't just keep doing what we're doing; we have to do more.' (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Dearborn— If you can catch Alana Strager sitting down, consider yourself lucky.

When the energetic 44-year-old single mother isn’t working for Ford Motor Co. — she helped design the aluminum bodied F-150 — she spends her time riding Harleys, running triathlons and negotiating Tough Mudder obstacle courses. And she fixes problems.

If something’s frustrating someone — especially if it involves operating a pickup — Strager will work to find a solution.

It’s no wonder, then, that when chief engineer Pete Reyes began assembling his team of engineers and product developers for the F-150, Strager’s name was first on his list.

“Alana translates a customer want into a vision,” Reyes said in an interview. “She was the first person we wanted to go get. She was a must-get.”

Strager’s officially known as an F-150 program manager, but many refer to her as the “Queen of Innovation.” She’s responsible for getting all sides of the F-150 team — the customer-savvy marketers, intellectual engineers and the skilled manufacturers — to work together and talk through the new features that are coming on the truck, which will hit showrooms later this year.

Her ability to translate thoughts and ideas between the sometimes socially awkward engineers and practical marketing team stems from a psychology degree she earned from Michigan State University.

“It’s not about how much you know,” Strager said in an interview. “When you put the person into it — how will this affect the customer — you gain a new perspective.”

She’s led teams that have developed new features like the F-150’s remote-control tailgate-closers and lights on the interior sides of the pickup bed. The most recent innovation is BoxLink, a system of metal brackets and custom cleats that allows truck owners to tie cargo directly to the truck bed.

“Innovation’s about making things,” Strager said. “We have to look beyond what exists. We can’t just keep doing what we’re doing; we have to do more.”

To understand Strager is to understand her father, Melvin.

A program manager and, later, vice president of engineering at Masco Corp., Melvin Strager passed his passion for the auto industry to his daughter when she was still in school.

In 1990, when her father was program manager of Masco Corp.’s HN80 Aeromax aluminum-bodied heavy trucks, he gave his daughter a job answering phones as the company’s receptionist.

But when the chief engineer — her father’s boss— stopped by her desk to see how she was doing, Strager admitted she was bored and asked for something more to do. She soon found herself heading Masco’s timing and control department.

Getting direct feedback

She worked on the revolutionary HN80 truck, which included a 5,271-part overhaul that changed “everything but the handle.” The $120,000-or-so trucks also used a heavy dose of aluminum, something that came in handy when Reyes tabbed her for the 2015 F-150 team.

To help design the truck, she’d leave the office and visit the nearest truck stop along I-75 to pick the brains of real truckers — until her father found out and requested she stop.

After her stint at Masco, Strager worked from 2002-08 on the team that made Ford’s Harley-Davidson pickup. She also helped Ford with the launch of the Focus before moving to Chicago to work on the brand management team, but jumped at the chance to return to trucks — and Detroit — to help design the F-150.

“As soon as Pete asked me, I knew, ‘I need to work on this truck,’ ” she said.

Thinking inside the box

Strager is especially proud of the BoxLink system, which she helped develop with friend and co-worker Adrian Aguirre.

They started by realizing the basic shape of the cargo bed hasn’t changed for thousands of years. Since the time of chariots, people hauled things in boxes.

Since they couldn’t change the shape, they decided to make hauling things easier by changing what was inside that box.

BoxLink is made up of four slots on the inside of the bed that help customers tie down whatever they need to the bed of the truck. There are permanent mounting slots inside the bed, but the metal cleats can be popped in and out, making the feature favorable for aftermarket companies who need to customize the truck to fit specific needs.

“We’re people building trucks for people so they can help other people,” she said. “It’s important to remember that social aspect.”

Strager’s father died in 2001, but her career has come full-circle and is helping keep his memory alive, she said.

“He’d think this is awesome,” Strager said. “He’d be happy that I’m happy. This is my dream job. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”

mmartinez@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2401
Twitter.com/MikeMartinez_DN

Alana Strager helped develop the F-150's remote-control tailgate-closers ... (Photos by Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
F-150 Program Manager Alana Strager Strager is proud of the BoxLink system ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)