A Detour and an Opportunity

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IN the late 1940s, my parents migrated from the South to the North, seeking opportunity. That word, opportunity, has been a shaper of my life.

My family lived through the civil rights era, in which many Americans tried to right the wrongs of social injustice. My parents believed that things would change for minorities and that there would be opportunity for those who were ready. They stressed that my siblings and I get ready, through education.

As a child in Ohio, I delivered The Dayton Daily News. At 13, I was named newspaper delivery boy of the year; my picture was on the front page. I later worked in the circulation department until I left for college.

When I was a senior in high school, the General Motors Institute, now Kettering University, was diversifying. My counselor recommended that I attend G.M.I., but I told her I was interested in studying computer science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. My counselor went so far as to fill out a G.M.I. application and slip it into my locker. I signed it and sent it in just to have her leave me alone. Soon after, G.M.I. sent me an acceptance letter. Attending G.M.I. worked out well because I didn't know how I would pay for Miami, and the institute had a cooperative program in which I attended classes for six weeks, then worked for six weeks.

After graduating in 1976, I worked at G.M. as a production engineer, making steering wheels. A year later, I became a front line supervisor. I loved the manufacturing floor and learning about different operations. A majority of my crew were women, who helped me learn the job. I learned that people want to help one another. You're responsible for a job, but you can't do it alone.

One of my later assignments as production manager was to help turn around a G.M. operation in Portugal. It was a chance to make a difference and I seized it, yet I recall thinking as the plane took off for Lisbon, "What have I done?" But I loved the assignment. My family and I traveled extensively in Europe in the three years I was there.

After returning from Portugal in 1987, I accepted my first executive assignment, as general superintendent of manufacturing in Canada. In 1991, I attended a Sloan executive program at Stanford for a master of science in management degree.

In 1997, G.M. appointed me as vice president and general manager of Delphi interior and safety systems, a division of Delphi Automotive Systems, its parts maker. Two years later it spun off Delphi.

When my colleagues and I were contemplating whether to move to the new company, I said, "Let's go for it." I've always loved a good journey. I was promoted twice more before becoming president and chief operating officer in 2005. . That was the same year we filed for Chapter 11 reorganization because our performance was continuing to deteriorate. We needed to preserve the value of the company before it deteriorated any further.

In 2007, I was named Delphi's C.E.O. and remained president as well.

The reorganization was one of the largest in the nation's industrial history. We focused our portfolio on 33 core product lines, down from 131, and emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 as a leaner, more product-focused, high-tech company. We had taken a formerly unprofitable subsidiary, geared to one North American customer, and made it a diversified growth company with over 100,000 employees in over 30 countries.

Even though I've been at G.M. and Delphi my entire career, it feels as if I've been at several companies because I've worked in so many areas. My career is an example of taking advantage of opportunities when they come along.

In November 2011, I rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange to mark Delphi's initial public offering. I remember standing there thinking that we had seized our opportunity.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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