Chrysler Corp. also has some Kansas history in its leadership history: Bob Eaton, a Kansas University engineering graduate, became chairman and CEO in the early 1990s and helped engineer the company’s $76 billion merger with Daimler-Benz AG.
After two years as chairman of DaimlerChrysler, Eaton retired in 2000. Today his name is on the front of KU’s newest engineering building, Eaton Hall.
The pending arrival of Ed Whitacre Jr. as chairman of General Motors means leaders at two of Detroit’s Big Three automakers will share a common past experience: carrying Kansas driver’s licenses.
Whitacre, tapped to lead the “new” GM once it emerges from bankruptcy, served from 1982 to 1985 as head of Southwestern Bell’s Kansas division, leading the business through deregulation in Topeka before moving on to become head of the entire company that would become AT&T.
“He’s a guy with humbleness and humility, and that’s served him well,” said Mike Scott, who joined Southwestern Bell’s Kansas Division soon after Whitacre departed for corporate headquarters. “He’s gone on to take our company from a regional Bell company, with five states, and now look at it. He had a lot to do, obviously, with us becoming AT&T and becoming the worldwide telecommunications leader we are now.
“I don’t know anything about the car business, but I would think they have the right guy leading them.”
Whitacre, who has admitted, “I don’t know anything about the car business,” will join a fellow engineer and industry outsider with Kansas ties in a top automaker job.
Alan Mulally, who grew up in Lawrence and graduated from Lawrence High School and Kansas University, is in his third year as president and CEO at Ford Motor Co. Mulally’s 37-year career at Boeing started upon graduation from KU and ended as CEO of Boeing’s commercial airplanes business.
“He’s gone on to do such great things at Ford, there’s some pretty good precedent for a good Kansan to come in and turn around an industry like that,” Scott said.
Whitacre isn’t exactly a Kansan, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t fit in during his tenure in Topeka. Whitacre was born in Texas, attended Texas Tech University, went on to lead a telecommunications company based in Texas and today has his name on the engineering school at his alma mater.
But in 1999, when Whitacre visited Lawrence to deliver the Anderson Chandler Lecture for the KU Business School, the corporate powerhouse exhibited plenty of down-home charm and Midwest sensibility, Scott said.
“That was the first time I’d ever met him,” said Scott, then manager of external affairs of what had by then become SBC Communications in Lawrence. “He was just the most humble and down-to-earth guy.”
For example, Scott talks about their ride up to the Lied Center. Scott happened to be in the car with Whitacre when they arrived for the lecture on “Consumers, Competition and Choice: The Future of Telecommunications.”
Whitacre: “What are all these people here for?”
Scott: “Well, they’re here to see you.”
Whitacre: “I can’t believe that.” Then, perhaps after contemplating the impact of the filled parking lot for the free lecture, “I certainly hope I give them their money’s worth.”
Scott continues working for the company, as manager of external affairs for AT&T in Kansas. He’s confident the former chairman and CEO of Southwestern Bell, then SBC Communications, then AT&T, will continue to make a positive difference.
“Once he left Kansas he went on to do bigger and better things on a corporatewide basis,” Scott said, “and he’s done a wonderful job doing it.”