She is chief engineer of the Ford Bronco Everglades, pushing innovation and change

Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press
Jolanta Coffey, the Ford Bronco Chief Program Engineer with the 2022 Ford Bronco Everglades in Fenton on Feb. 2, 2022. This version of the Bronco will be revealed at the upcoming Chicago Auto Show.

The chief engineer behind the all-new Ford Bronco Everglades arrived in Detroit as a 10-year-old from Poland knowing maybe five words of English, turning to numbers as the only language she could navigate in America.

"We moved from this very small village in the south of Poland, kind of the mountain region," Jolanta Coffey, 47, told the Free Press. "My stepdad had family in the U.S. so we moved here to be with his family and for greater economic opportunity."

He took a job as a UAW machine repairman for Chrysler, speaking little English. She enrolled at Saint Cunegunda, a private Catholic school on the west side of the city as one of 14 students in class. Her teacher, so kind and patient, taped English words to everything she could think to identify — chair, table, desk, chalkboard, door, clock. 

"It was so difficult. I couldn't understand anything," Coffey told the Free Press. "It was totally scary, terrifying. You think about what 5th grade kids are like. It was terrible. I just really wanted to fit in. I really didn’t want to be the odd kid anymore. So I did everything I could do to possibly learn English so I could fit in."

Jolanta Coffey, seen here in December 1984, is taking part in her 5th Grade holiday show where she dressed in a traditional Polish outfit and described Polish holiday traditions at a school in southwest Detroit.

Years later, she tried to find her teacher to thank her. 

But the kind woman had died.

"She treated me so well. I made the honor roll, I think, by the end of the first year," Coffey said. "I couldn't understand anything and she just tried to help me. I feel I owe so much to her."

'Most difficult job'

Coffey, who went on to earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Michigan State University and a master's degree in mechanical engineering with an MBA from the University of Michigan, is now chief engineer of the Ford Bronco.. 

More:New $53,000 Ford Bronco Everglades has a snorkel: How it protects engine

She is taking the company into uncharted territory as Ford moves to challenge Jeep for the highly lucrative off-road market that has been dominated by Jeep for decades. Not only is the company building award-winning Broncos as fast as possible to deliver to customers waiting anxiously for months, but cutting deeper into the multi-billion-dollar after-market accessories industry with this Everglades model that underscores the new revenue potential for Ford, too. 

Coffey has been at Ford since 1996, having joined the customer service division as part of the company's college graduate program. She specializes in analyzing customer information in designing the vehicle interior, whether from interviews or surveys or cameras placed with permission from consumers. She has worked as a global cockpit manager, responsible for design of the steering wheel and instrument panel with its music system, heating and air-conditioning and navigation. In product development, she has managed the global budget while overseeing organizational teams and programs.

Now she manages a whole team for an iconic vehicle.

"The big thing for me with Jolanta, I don’t know all of her background, but the thing that has struck me since she’s been here is, really, her focus on delivering what the customer wants," Jamie Groves, Bronco vehicle engineering manager, told the Free Press. "That may sound really obvious, that’s what chief program engineers should do. But so often, that job is the most difficult job in the company ... What Jolanta has to do is balance not just what the customer wants but what the company wants and needs. She’s responsible for profitability of the program, and the complexity, and the manufacturability, and ultimately how we sell it to the customer."

Never a question

The chief engineer is also responsible for design and making tradeoffs between the business side and how it looks and performs, said Groves, who works hand-in-hand with Coffey.

Jolanta Coffey, the Ford Bronco Chief Program Engineer with the 2022 Ford Bronco Everglades in Fenton on Feb. 2, 2022. This version of the Bronco will be revealed at the upcoming Chicago Auto Show.

"So she owns all of that," he said. "Very often you get into difficult discussions about how much money we’ll spend on certain performance aspects of a product. I’ve never felt with Jolanta like we were on opposite sides of that equation. So if I’m saying I need X or Y to support great off-road performance of the Bronco, there’s never a question of, 'Well, I don’t think we can afford to do that.' It's just, 'OK, how are we going to get it done?'  Which makes my job a lot easier and a lot more fun."

Coffey has come a long way from Waksmund, a village of just a few thousand located about an hour south of Krakow.

"I grew up on the west side of Detroit, very close to Dearborn," she said. "Ford was a huge presence. It's why I wanted to work at Ford."

Classmates saw her culture and language as foreign. Math allowed Coffey to connect because it was an area in which she could demonstrate knowledge.

Jolanta Coffey, the Ford Bronco chief program engineer, is the little girl in the red coat in this March 1985 photo. This was her first science fair, held at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Coffey oversaw development of the  2022 Ford Bronco Everglades, which will be revealed at the 2022 Chicago Auto Show.

"Maybe that whole experience reinforced my love of math," she said. "Math I could do."

She moved to Sterling Heights and graduated from Stevenson High School before heading off to earn degrees in engineering. And from there, she added psychology to her interests — creating a unique combination at Ford.

"I am really trying to understand the human experience and how customers are reacting to our vehicles," Coffey said.

Secrets of the trade

And then she proceeds to reveal a few of her many discoveries.

Part of what Coffey does is observe and listen. That may seem basic but it's nuanced and sometimes profound in its simplicity.

For example, where do people store things in their cars? Where are they putting small and large objects? In studying consumer behavior, Coffey will observe that various compartments may close but consumers leave those compartments open — whether it's to store pens or phone charging cords. That intel can inform design, and whether it's necessary to design closed compartments in certain parts of the cockpit.

The interior view of the 2022 Ford Bronco Everglades in Fenton on Feb. 2, 2022.
This version of the Bronco will be revealed at the upcoming Chicago Auto Show.

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In Europe, customers carry beverages and need a cupholder to hold them — but they rarely consume the drinks while driving. Meanwhile, drivers in the U.S. actually drink their beverages while driving. That's a subtle difference but important in terms of access, Coffey noted.

People, when surveyed, will say how they use their cellphones while driving but when Coffey has asked permission to install cameras and observed behavior, it doesn't reflect what people say.

What people want and what they think they want sometimes don't match. 

Ford also pays attention to observations from owners who comment on social media, both likes and dislikes, she said. "If you just ask people, it may not be what the customers actually do."

Coffey talks to customers, reads their feedback documents while sitting in vehicles and trying to imagine the experiences.

Getting buyers to "fall in love" with the vehicles is one thing, making sure they "stay in love" is another issue entirely, she said. 

These days, as chief engineer, Coffey works with the design teams, engineering teams and marketing. Her job, once the concept is developed, is to stay on track and solve all the engineering issues that could prevent a feature from being launched. Her job is to bring it all together on budget. 

"I'm the one making sure it happens," she said.

Taking chances

Putting a snorkel on the Bronco Everglades was gutsy and not easy. But her team wanted to allow owners to drive in deep water without threat of damaging the engine, because the snorkel raises the air intake point.

This helps with water, as well as dust and snow.

The snorkel on the 2022 Ford Bronco Everglades in Fenton on Feb. 2, 2022.
This version of the Bronco will be revealed at the upcoming Chicago Auto Show.

"Anything you try and do which is extreme, it’s hard basically," said Paul Wraith, chief Bronco designer. "It makes people nervous."

Offering a snorkel from the factory is unprecedented for Ford and Coffey made it happen, he said, "We’ve created this innovative execution that nobody’s done before. There’s nothing to go on, there’s nothing to copy." 

Attaching something after the fact versus engineering from the factory and passing safety tests is a very different challenge.

That takes passion and focus and determination to make it work, Wraith said.

"The chief engineer’s job is kind of the worst in the entire industry. They get it from all sides," he said. "Considering the number of things Jolanta has to manage, taking on essentially an innovation project could seem like a real risk. Like, 'I don’t want to deal with that.' But her ... focus is so absolute ... I massively respect her ability to keep these unbelievable number of variables in check."

She pushes hard in areas that might see resistance, Wraith said.

"She’s got a wealth of experience. I’ve never met anybody who’s done as many things as she has done," he said. "She can very often go, 'I used to do that job. Here’s what I would’ve done.' Then she pulls it all off with humor, which is amazing."

Looking back

Having just flown to Chicago to show the world the $53,000 Bronco Everglades at the Chicago Auto Show Thursday, Coffey is reflective about her past and the person she is today. She remembers the sheer joy and relief of reading her first book in English. She can't recall the title but thinks it must have been a classic Judy Blume story.

A map of the Everglades and water markers on the front sides of the 2022 Ford Bronco Everglades in Fenton on Feb. 2, 2022. This version of the Bronco will be revealed at the upcoming Chicago Auto Show.

"My daughter’s in 5th grade right now, so it’s very interesting for me, the comparison — me not speaking English. No one in my family was professional," Coffey said.

When her daughter stayed home in Canton to attend school remotely last year, the child watched her engineer mother work and listened to meetings and gained exposure to so much.

"The information she has and how that shapes her versus my starting point," Coffey said. "It’s really stark for me to think about where I started and where she is and the benefits she gets." 

Jolanta Coffey, chief engineer behind the Ford Bronco, is seen here leaning against a covered 2022 Bronco Everglades at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday, February 9, 2022.

"I think that kind of experience of not belonging is also partially what really drives me in the work I do every day at Ford," Coffey said. "It gives me the opportunity to mentor women or underrepresented groups. It's about making sure you’re open to people and tap into their abilities. I totally get what it means not to fit in." 

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Contact Phoebe Wall Howard or 313-618-1034. Follow her on Twitter@phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.