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Excerpt: 'The Turnaround Kid'

'The Turnaround Kid'



It was past midnight as I drove through the deserted streets of suburban Detroit. My plane from New York had been delayed for hours by thunderstorms. I was exhausted from two long days of negotiations with lawyers and representatives of General Motors and the creditors and stockholders of the bankrupt Delphi Corporation. The latest in my string of complex industrial rescue missions, Delphi, a $27 billion global auto parts company with 180,000 workers, was my responsibility.

The talks had been torturous and frustrating. Normally, the details would be swimming in my head and I'd be eager to get home to share them with my wife, Maggie. Instead, nothing of what was discussed in New York was on my mind as I sped past darkened houses and commercial strips. I wasn't headed for home. I was driving to the sprawling complex of Beaumont Hospital, where Maggie lay dying of glioblastoma, an incurable brain cancer.

After parking my car in the hospital lot, I wound my way through the corridors and then took an elevator to the hospice floor. I pushed open the door to her room. The darkened space was washed with an eerie green glow from the lighting outside. There was no movement or sound. In the shadows I saw our eldest son, Chris, at Maggie's bedside, holding her hand as he had done all night, every night, for the past six days.

"She's gone," he whispered.

She had stopped breathing twenty minutes before. The way she looked, lying still with her mouth open, made it seem that she was as surprised as I was by this turn of events.

Although I had known this moment was coming ever since Maggie's condition had been diagnosed in late May, I was stunned. As I sat down, I was flooded with emotions. I was angry, mostly with the weather gods who had denied me one last moment with Maggie while she still lived. I was also relieved that the nightmare of the past three months, watching her slip away, was finally over with. And I felt that strange, hollow sensation that comes with such an enormous loss. Maggie, who had been my mentor, and occasional tormentor, for as long as I could remember, was gone.

Chris got up and left us alone. I told Maggie I loved her and would miss her. I leaned over and kissed her and held her hand. She was still warm to the touch.

It was another ten minutes before a young doctor arrived and perfunctorily pronounced her deceased, and began filling out the paperwork. After the doctor came the chaplain, a cheerful and rotund fellow who said all the right things about life and love and family and death. Then he held hands with us in a circle next to the bed for a word of prayer.

At the nurses' station, they had all the paperwork ready to go. Two months earlier, Maggie, always the consummate planner, had insisted I go to a funeral home and get everything set. Also being a consummate skinflint in some ways, she had insisted on a simple cremation, no fancy casket, no memorial ser vice. I had no intention of defying her last wishes in this regard, so I signed the papers, made sure Maggie's body was going to the right place, and then left with Chris.

Chris would spend the next eighteen hours in his hotel room, recovering from near exhaustion. I returned to the apartment in Troy where Maggie and I had been living since I accepted the Delphi job a year earlier, in July 2005. I wandered around a bit and stared at all the touches—a picture here, a potted plant there—that she had added to make the sterile rooms our home away from home. Then, overwhelmed with fatigue, I crawled into our massive bed. Maggie had been my bed mate for more than forty years. We had held each other and cried in this bed after getting her prognosis. Now it felt like the emptiest place in the world.

After a few hours of sleep I arose and dressed and went to pick up our youngest son, Alexander, at a nearby hotel. Still in shock, and occasionally in tears, I was trying to grasp the notion of being a widower. Chris needed time to himself, so Alexander and I went to the funeral home as they were opening for the day and completed the arrangements for Maggie's cremation later that same afternoon.

Because I was the CEO of one of the nation's major corporations, one that was going through a widely publicized bankruptcy restructuring, Maggie's death would be news. At her insistence we had told almost no one of her condition, so her passing was going to come as a shock. I had a lot of calls to make, and I needed to take some time with details such as death notices and obituaries. I went into the office to work on these tasks, and was immediately and almost absurdly reminded that in the midst of my personal grief, which felt so enormous and all-consuming, the world continued to turn and the demands of my professional life were not going to let up.

For weeks a militant union group called Soldiers of Solidarity had been planning to picket Delphi headquarters, and this was the day. And so it was that on this brilliantly sunny morning scores of protesters from Delphi operations all over the state of Michigan arrived at the entry to our complex and rallied in full view from my office window to show their disgust at the company and at me personally. They chanted slogans, marched on the sidewalk, and carried placards saying things like:


My personal favorite was a sign belittling my decision to accept a salary of just one dollar a year during a restructuring that was going to cost thousands of workers their jobs. It read:


Even in this dark hour, I could appreciate the life-goes-on irony of the moment and the wit behind the signs. Karen Healy, one of Delphi's top officers, wasn't so calm. She marched outside to confront the protesters and told them that they might want to reconsider their demonstration out of respect for Maggie's death. There was a moment of awkward silence, and then a sharp rebuttal. Workers die all the time, they said. The pickets stayed and were in full voice as I departed for the funeral home in midafternoon.

Alexander and I went to view Maggie prior to her cremation. (Chris was not ready to confront this kind of reality.) The viewing room was big enough for thirty or forty chairs, but Maggie was an intensely private person, and fittingly, Alexander and I were the only visitors. We each had a few minutes alone with Maggie, who looked peaceful in her favorite Lanz nightgown, the red-and-white one decorated with images of little dogs. She also wore her only watch, a twelve-dollar special with the Coos & Deschutes logo of our model railroad on its face. With her in the casket were an elaborate origami crane from our third son, Robin, and a handmade card from our only granddaughter, Weston.

As I stood beside Maggie I recalled that my father had said it was important to touch the dead so that we can absorb the finality of their passing. I leaned over to kiss her good-bye and touch her hand. She was cold and waxlike. My father was right. In this moment I knew she was really gone.

We followed the hearse that took her to the crematorium, a graceful white marble building in the middle of a beautiful cemetery. Once Maggie's casket was placed in the cremation oven, the attendant closed the huge and dignified brass doors that shut it off from view. Alexander went with the man in charge and personally activated the control to start the burning. We stayed for a while and talked about what was happening, but there wasn't anything further to see.

When I was back at my apartment, the phone rang. It was New York's governor, George Pataki, calling to express condolences. I thanked him and in the almost-awkward silence chatted a bit about work. I told him we were committed to keeping open our two big operations in New York, at Rochester and Buffalo. He thanked me for keeping jobs in his state, and sympathetically reminded me to take care of myself in the coming weeks and months.

That night Chris, Alexander, and I had dinner at a Japanese restaurant that had been one of Maggie's favorites. It seemed strange to be there without her. It seemed stranger still that on a day filled with so many varied and demanding experiences that I wouldn't be going home to talk them over with her. In the last twenty-four hours I had worked feverishly on the largest industrial bankruptcy in American history. I had come home to the death of my wife of four decades. I had been picketed at my office, kissed Maggie good-bye for the last time, and then chatted with the governor of New York, reassuring him about Delphi jobs in his state.

In the quiet when day was done, I realized how little I had ever reflected on the life I had lived at high speed for almost thirty years, moving from one corporate rescue to another. I was also struck by the fact that very few people, be they lawyers, stockholders, picketers, or politicians, ever seemed to understand that as we struggled to save big companies, they were dealing with a flesh-and-blood human being with compassion and emotion, not some one-dimensional caricature with a digital calculator for a heart.

As Maggie knew, I took every challenge personally, and from the beginning, with the Chrysler rescue, sought to lessen the pain while preserving what assets could be saved for workers, owners, debtors, and communities. These companies had never been mere numbers to me. They were always human endeavors, and the solutions I sought were based on rather idealistic values and what I understood of human nature. These were the things that Maggie and I discussed every evening.

Life's turning points invite us to take stock. I was confronted with one of these events in Maggie's passing, and it occurred at the intersection of controversies involving the fate of a major corporation, the anxiety of a workforce under duress, and a turning point of our global economy. These are more than enough impetus for this book, which I hope is something more than a business memoir. It is my attempt to understand, share, and explain a life spent performing rescue missions at the highest levels of corporate America, in partnership with many allies, including the one I lost on August 11, 2006.

Copyright © 2008 by Robert Stevens Miller. Posted with permission of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Steve Miller