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An Outsider Reemerges Front and Center at GM

Autos: Vice Chairman Harry Pearce, a former product-liability lawyer for the company, brings a different style to the corporate giant he's helping to steer.

November 12, 2000|TERRIL YUE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — Harry Pearce strode up to a makeshift stage at the Cadillac factory in this gritty burg in the midst of Detroit. Dapper in a gray suit, he clearly was from a different world than the factory workers who had gathered at dawn to see him.

But though most of the union members and salaried workers in the plant had never seen him and knew little about him, they rose as one and gave a rousing standing ovation to the man who may one day be their company's chairman.

Harry Pearce is back.

Today Pearce, 58, is vice chairman of General Motors Corp., the No. 2 executive at the world's largest corporation. But Chairman John F. Smith has been scaling back his responsibilities since handing over the chief executive title to the young and energetic G. Richard Wagoner. So as much as any single person short of Wagoner, Pearce will steer the auto maker into the next decade.

He's beaten acute leukemia that he had only a 50% chance of surviving, and that, combined with his unwavering loyalty to the auto maker and his reaching out to employees also stricken with cancer, has made him something of a folk hero to GM's rank and file.

Pearce was declared cured in September after a stem-cell transplant from one of his brothers and two years in remission, and now exudes health. Yes, his hair is whiter and a bit wispier than a couple of years ago, but he is fit and has kept his piercing gaze and rock-solid handshake.

He's back at work full time, tackling his broad portfolio, which includes developing new forms of alternative-propulsion vehicles, managing government relations, building the GM Defense business with the U.S. military and deciding what's next for GM's high-potential media subsidiary, Hughes Electronics Corp. It's enough to bring him squarely front and center at GM.

But it's not all about boosting GM's business or making cleaner engines. On this day, Pearce is at the Hamtramck factory, which turns out Sevilles and DeVilles, to urge the workers to participate in a bone-marrow registry so that cancer victims stand a better chance of finding a marrow match and beating the odds of the disease.

"It changes your attitude toward life in general," Pearce said. "When you're facing your own mortality that directly, it causes you to reassess in a very broad way what's important in life."

He's on the board of a handful of cancer organizations and is chairman of the National Marrow Foundation. But he says he wants to boost not only R&D spending but also the realization among cancer victims that they must believe they can be winners.

"If you come to the conclusion or even tentative conclusion that you're not going to make it, I personally believe that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said in an interview on the 38th floor of General Motors' downtown headquarters, one level below his spacious office decorated with the grandfather clocks and other timepieces he collects.

"A positive attitude with respect to one's ability to achieve a cure and conquer the disease is part of the cure."

*

In some ways, Pearce is a GM outsider. He's not a career automotive man like most other executives. He's not a "car guy" who grew up with motor oil in his veins. But as company insiders and outside observers agree, he knows GM, and the industry, as well as anyone in Detroit.

A lawyer by training, Pearce is renowned for his keen intellect and steel-trap mind, becoming an authority on topics through voracious reading and astute questioning until he is an expert.

As he says, there's no better way to learn about an industry than to litigate your way through it, as he did in defending GM in product-liability suits starting in 1970. He can talk about crash dynamics, hydrogen extraction in fuel cells and paint jobs with the best of them.

"He definitely commands quite a lot of respect in the analyst community, where he's seen as a trustworthy character, someone you can rely on to execute sensibly," said Saul Rubin, automotive analyst at UBS Warburg in New York.

Pearce works without scripts--a habit from years of court summations. He impressed journalists at the Detroit auto show in January when he made a complex presentation on a hybrid car powered by a diesel engine and an electric motor--without using notes or visual aids.

"His incisive intellect is well beyond his training as a lawyer," said Greg Salchow, chief auto analyst at the investment bank Raymond James & Co. in Detroit. "Alternative fuel is something about which he could do a lot for GM, and even for society as a whole. I think without a doubt we'll have fuel-cell vehicles, and his ability to communicate and work with regulators like the California Air Resources Board will serve him well."

Given his work as auto company lawyer, consumer advocates are unlikely to put Pearce at the top of any heroes list.

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