Like most boys growing up, Rob McConnell enjoyed making a mess of things.

“When I was young, I played a lot with Legos, taking things a part, putting things together,” said the Lansing, MI native. “Hot wheels, Matchbox, I was always just excited about cars,”

McConnell, who admits to being exceptional in the maths and sciences, took his love for cars all the way to the University of Michigan where he majored in mechanical engineering.

While in school, he didn’t venture too far off from his fascination. His first job was working at a local dealership as a shuttle van driver. When he began looking for an internship, McConnell stayed in the automotive lane and began interning at the Toyota Technical Center which, like U of M, also in Ann Arbor, MI.

After graduation in 2001, McConnell stayed with the company and began his tenure in Toyota’s body design department, a unit the 34-year-old now leads.

“I’ve been with Toyota all my professional career. Our department is unique because we have a lot of young people here. On a typical day, you would see me and my team all with our headphones on, rocking out to The Roots or Common, getting inspired…”

Kaizen, Toyota’s much heralded corporate philosophy of “continuous improvement,” has guided McConnell’s career. His team has had a lead in seven different Toyota vehicles in his time including the Solara, Venza & Tundra, but the Avalon was the first car Toyota’s leadership allowed to be designed and built outside of Japan.

“Toyota gives you a lot of responsibility. This Avalon is completely re-styled and it’s been eight years in the making. Over that time, my most needed skills have had to have been leadership and teamwork because in the engineering role you have to take in all of the inputs from other departments including Style, Manufacturing & the Performance Groups and package it all together…”

McConnell, who leads a team of ten-plus, said that in order to be an engineer, it’s more than just math and science.

“I was pretty good in math, yeah, but t’s not so much that you have to have a strong technical background, Engineering is all about innovation and creativity. You have to work on a team and create high team morale. And you never know where you will get ideas for something. Could be at your desk, could be in the shower!”

Taking a page from Chrysler’s recent success with the 300, a car that, also designed by an African-American man, was geared toward the Black and urban audiences, the new Avalon makes a bold statement with its larger grill, larger standard rim sizes, and more athletic appearance. Expectations are high that the car will attract a new audience. Actor Idris Elba is the car’s new spokesperson.

“What I have to do is try to make the imaginary possible. We take something from a piece of paper to on the road.”

Watch the behind the scenes video of the new Toyota Avalon campaign featuring Idris Elba.

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