Cynthia A. Niekamp
President and General Manager
BorgWarner TorqTransfer Systems
For her outstanding executive leadership in the automotive industry, the College of Engineering is proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to Cynthia A. Niekamp.
Dancing the Night Away
Growing up, it was a rare thing for women to go into science and engineering. Cynthia Niekamp, however, didn’t want to be pigeonholed. “I grew up with four brothers, and my mother was somewhat of a tomboy growing up,” she says, “so I didn’t want to go be a traditional math teacher or a nurse—I always wanted to do something that’s a little different.”
A native of Dayton, Ohio, Niekamp got the chance to explore the engineering sciences at Purdue while still in high school—via the dance floor.
“Women in Engineering had a program for high school students interested in engineering. When I attended the weekend program early in my senior year, I got to stay in the dorm and attend a dance at Tarkington Hall,” she says. “My most vivid memory from that trip was that Purdue men—students—actually went up and tapped women on the shoulder and asked, ‘Would you care to dance?’ I thought, ‘Boy, I like this place.’”
The experience gave Niekamp unusual insight into her future alma mater.
“In addition to learning about the quality of the engineering program at Purdue, I got the soft sense of student life,” Niekamp says. “Purdue had a very good program for reaching out to women students.”
In 1977, Niekamp brought her engineer’s cap and her dancing shoes and enrolled in the industrial engineering program.
Reviving PESC and Creating the Roundtable
Back then, the Engineering Student Council was mostly just an idea. “The council had basically gone defunct and didn’t exist when I was a freshman,” Niekamp says. “Then at the beginning of my sophomore year, I heard about another student who wanted to resurrect it.”
The two women, along with a few others, organized the council and accepted two students from every discipline. At this point the organization had no reputation, so the PESC basically took whoever wanted to join. The next year, Niekamp became president, and things were already changing dramatically. The Council was much more active and popular, so much so that students were asked to vote for delegates to the council. In that second year of the PESC, Niekamp organized the very first Industrial Roundtable. “It was an exciting time for us,” she says. “I took on something that I knew was important to students and that would be able to grow and sustain afterwards.”
Today the Purdue Engineering Student Council’s Industrial Roundtable is the premier event of its kind and the largest student-run job fair in the nation, drawing on average 250 companies and 10,000 students every year.
The Production Floor
“I never really imagined myself as a typical engineer—you know, I actually thought engineers only worked in laboratories or behind drafting desks,” Niekamp says. “During school, I liked the economic, systems, and human factors side of engineering. And, while I was a summer student at General Motors, I became intrigued with the making of things and the management of people.”
While working for GM, Niekamp gained exposure on all fronts, personal and
“I was a shy, quiet type at first,” she says, “so they started me out doing Fortran programming in the industrial engineering department. I didn’t get out to the plant much, yet every summer I got more and more interested in seeing the production side of things.”
Eventually, Niekamp worked on time studies and cost estimating, tasks that took her to the manufacturing floor.
“I became more and more intrigued with the plant floor,” she says, “with the people part of it and the making of product. It really turned me on, and I gained increasing comfort as I got more exposure.”
After her senior year, Niekamp became a production supervisor for GM, and the company gave her a scholarship to the Harvard Business School, where she received her MBA.
These days, Niekamp holds the position of president and general manager of BorgWarner Torq Transfer Systems, a product leader in power- train applications. BorgWarner has $3.1 billion in combined sales, 14,300 employees in 14 countries, and a client base that includes Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda, Caterpillar, Navistar, and Audi, among others. She has served on the board of trustees at the Ronald McDonald House and the Dayton Museum of Natural History; currently Niekamp serves on the board of the Delphi Corporation.
In 1998 she received an Outstanding Industrial Engineering Award from the school where the men liked to dance.
“When you go through school, you learn the method and the discipline of attacking a problem or an opportunity,” Niekamp says, “and you can even put the human element in that process, which is always an important factor. This is what I have carried with me since my years at Purdue.”
|2004–||President and General Manager, TorqTransfer Systems, BorgWarner, Inc.|
|2003||Senior Vice President and CFO, MeadWestvaco Corporation|
|1998||President, Mead Specialty Papers; Outstanding Industrial Engineering Award, Purdue|
|1995||Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Planning, MeadCorporation|
|1993||Managing Director, TRW Transportation Systems|
|1992||Director of Operations, TRW Technar, Inc.|
|1990||Vice President, TRW Engine and After Market Group|
|1989||Plant Manager, Delco Moraine NDH Division, General Motors Co.|
|1986||Operations Manager, General Motors France|
|1985||General Supervisor, Delco Moraine Division, General Motors Co.|
BSIE ’81, Purdue University
MBA ’83, Harvard University