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They Don't Make Them Like They Used To

Published: 6/15/2010
Retired GM president and former CEO F. James McDonald died Sunday at the age of 87. Reading his obituary provided a lesson in how much Detroit CEO culture and corporate careerism in general have changed since the post-war auto boom of the 1950s.

In McDonald’s day, achieving the American dream often involved getting a job with a solid company and staying there for the length of your career.

Consider –

McDonald attended the General Motors Institute (now known as Kettering University) fresh out of high school before joining the Navy during WWII. His career with GM resumed in 1946 when he joined Saginaw Malleable Iron, and for the next 35 years he rose steadily through the ranks. In 1981 he was named CEO, a position he held for six years before he retired.

Contrast his many years spent at the company with GM’s current CEO, Edward E. Whitacre, Jr., who took over as interim chief as part of the federally financed bankruptcy re-organization. Prior to coming to GM, he had been chairman and CEO of AT&T.

Ford’s current CEO has an engineering background and worked for Boeing most of his career, arriving at the carmaker only 4 years ago.

Chrysler’s last CEO before they filed for bankruptcy, Robert Nardelli, had formerly been in charge at Home Depot and General Electric. The company is now headed by Sergio Marchionne, Italian chief of Fiat whose varied background includes stints at accounting firms, industrial supply companies, and verification and testing firms.

With all the tumult in the auto industry, it's safe to say whether it comes to cars or chief executives, they just don’t make them like they used to in Detroit.

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