Michigan Leaders Before They Were Stars
By Carol Cain
Senior Producer and Host
WWJ-TV CBS Detroit’s “Michigan Matters”
It wasn’t always champagne wishes and caviar dreams or roar of sports fans or voters for some of our state’s most successful leaders. These captains of industry, government, sports and education were like thousands of other young people starting out with big dreams. It was experiences they had early on that shaped them and spurred them on to the road of success.
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For Anthony Earley it was while in the Navy he learned about facing crisis. “Those were Cold War years,” said Earley, who starts a new job this week as chair/president and CEO of PG&E Corp. in San Francisco leaving behind his position of executive chairman at DTE Energy. “American and Soviet submarines played a dangerous game of cat and mouse.” Earley recalled that experience as he talked about facing the power blackout of 2003 when he was CEO of DTE Energy. “Someone asked me why I looked so calm during that crisis,” he said. “I told them as a 25 year old submarine officer, I monitored Soviet fleet exercises or trailed Soviet subs. When you are doing that, you realize the lives of 100 sailors and an expensive ship are in your hands. If you screw up, you create a major international incident. You mature pretty fast.”
Rick Snyder mentioned three jobs that shaped his leadership style he still uses today as governor of Michigan. He worked at Gun Lake Northside Grocery in Battle Creek at age 14. He also worked as a resident advisor in the dorms at University of Michigan and teaching assistant to. Snyder, whose mantra as governor is “relentless positive action” said those jobs taught him to “solve problems and not assign blame or take credit.”
For Mary Sue Coleman, she learned about people while delivering Des Moines Register newspapers early every morning to fellow students at Grinnell College.
“The way they treated me as a newspaper delivery person was illuminating,” said Coleman, president at the University of Michigan. “It brought home how important it is to be respectful of everyone,” she said. “And I learned the lengths some were willing to go to avoid paying their bills when I came to collect,” she laughed. The studious-minded Coleman was a finalist in a science contest as a teen and had a chance to meet former President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson at the White House as part of it.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing was another who delivered newspapers and mowed lawns. He worked as an apprentice brick layer for his late father, Hasker Bing, and as a janitor in college. “My parents instilled in me the value of a good work ethic at a young age,” Bing said. He hit pay dirt as an NBA player with the Detroit Pistons and made $15,000 in his first year. “My parents used to joke it was too bad I wasn’t born 15 years later,” said Bing when NBA superstars made millions.
Others mentioned time spent in the military as leaving an indelible impact. Peter Secchia, Grand Rapids job businessman and former U.S. Ambassador to Italy, made his first trip to Europe while in the U.S. Marines. He learned about rigors and discipline which he used in his first job and as he rose through the ranks to become CEO of Universal Forest Products. “The toughest job at Universal Forest Products was during my training when I was unloading box cars in British Columbia, Canada in the winter of 1963 during 40 below zero temperatures,” said Secchia. “I was there to learn the lumber business,” which he did and stayed 40 years until retiring as CEO.
Blue Cross Blue Shield President and CEO Daniel Loepp won a job as an overnight billing clerk at Merrill Lynch over other students at De La Salle Collegiate High. “My advice? Don’t be bashful,” said Loepp. “It’s the reason I got that first job over 15 other guys.”
Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association and the North American International Auto Show, learned persistence as he competed as an arm wrestler in college and professionally. He wrestled Alan Fisher (a 26 time World Champion) in 1985 which appeared in the Sylvester Stallone movie “Over the Top”. “It’s okay to get your butt kicked a few times on the way to the top. As a matter a fact, it is a requirement,” said Alberts.
And as leader of UM, Coleman oversees an institution dedicated to educating people for their future. She had one piece of advice. “Take the job you can get even if it isn’t your first choice,” she said. “You will learn from it. Put everything you have in it.”
Carol Cain is Senior Producer and Host of “Michigan Matters” which airs 11 a.m. Sunday on WWJ-TV CBS Detroit. She also writes about business and politics in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at 248-355-7126 or via email.