Designing better businesses

Jun 30, 2006

Charles W. White '68 retires after 17 years of teaching

When Charles W. White '68 was growing up in Southern California, he dreamed about designing cars. He never envisioned that his real talent would be designing better businesses.

The associate professor of Business, who spent the past 17 years at Kettering teaching better business skills to tomorrow's leaders in marketing, information systems, accounting, business, science and engineering, retired on June 30.

It was a very good ride, he said. "In the eighth grade, I saw the Parade of Progress, GM's science show and tell. It promoted the Fischer Guild, a scholarship competition in which each student would design a car and submit a completed model. The car I designed was a half-inch too short to even meet the specifications for the contest," he said, chuckling as he remembered. "Let's just say in 1962 my design had a lot of fins."

Despite that, White was hooked. Design became the focal point of his interest. "I was addicted to cars," he explained. "I did a lot of car remodeling with my Dad - we redid a Chevy engine when I was seven or so, and later modified a 1949 7 Crosley into a two-seat sports car. I decided I wanted to design cars for General Motors."

That led to a career notebook and letters to a GM Design Staff member, who wrote back recommending four schools: three art design schools and Michigan State University, where he was accepted into the engineering school. "I knew I wanted to go out of state to school, which didn't particularly make sense. It was the difference between $30 a credit hour at UCLA and what seemed like a billion dollars," he laughed.

Then a pleasant California day intervened. Think 1960s. California. Open car windows and tagging along with your older brother. "I was in the car with my brother, Larry, and he stopped to talk to his friend who was a student at a place called General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich. I listened to his friend talk about what he was doing on the job and in class. I wrote to GMI and got an application from the school. They recommended that I go to a local plant for an interview. They suggested several, including Chevrolet-Los Angeles in Van Nuys.

"My interview turned out to be with Keith Brook, then a GMI student. I ran into Keith off and on for the next 20 or 30 years at General Motors. He asked me if I thought I could succeed at GMI. I remember telling him 'I wouldn't be applying if I didn't think I could succeed'."

White was right. Of the eight candidates who applied at the Van Nuys plant, only two got accepted into GMI. White could barely contain his enthusiasm. He wasn't shy when he suggested that GM assign him to the design staff at the GM Tech Center in Warren. GM sent him to work in Southern California, where one of his fellow co-op students was Mike Eagle '70, now the chair of Kettering University's Board of Trustees.

White's GMI career as a student co-op evolved. He was in the top 10 percent of his class and was appointed to the bachelor's/master's program with a full-ride GM Fellowship that sent him to Texas A&M for master's work. (At Texas A&M, he met the first Chevrolet bachelor's/master's student who was then working on his Ph.D. - Leonard Lamberson '61, who later served as GMI's Industrial Engineering department head.) A delay in completing his undergraduate thesis flipped his graduation dates, having him receive his master's degree from Texas A&M in January 1968 but not earning his bachelor's degree from GMI until August of the same year.

In November of 1968, he married his wife, Anita, a fellow Southern Californian whom he met at church. "I married her and took her away from the earthquake zone," he quipped.

In January 1969, he took a leave from General Motors and returned to Texas A&M for his Ph.D., a gift he gave himself. Upon graduation with his doctorate, General Motors gave him a new assignment, sending him back to Michigan where his mentor became Farno Green, an executive engineer at the GM Technical Center. One of Green's many interests focused on alternative energy. "Farno Green was way ahead years ago. He had a Saginaw plant running on compressed corn stock instead of coal."

In the 1970s, his GM path crossed with other GMI alumni - Don Guthrie '65, Kettering's former CIO and special assistant to the president, and J.T. Battenberg '66, former CEO at Delphi and long-time Kettering trustee.

White's focus turned to better business management through strategic planning. In time, information systems, communications, accounting, economics, and research and development were added to his professional experiences. "Out of those activities evolved new business issues for General Motors," he explained. "I got to be a partner on a team with Al Sobey '45. It led to a new GM process for reviewing new business opportunities within General Motors."

While working with GM corporate staffs, White became involved with Irvf Rybicki, vice president, GM Design Staff, in an effort to design better business management methods for the Design Staff. So White's youthful objective came true - his creative skills were put to work designing for GM's design staff!!

White's strategic business management experiences were especially recognized when he challenged Joe Joseph '69, Doug Patterson and Tom Ankeny, the three individuals assigned by Alex Mair '43, group executive - Technical Staffs Group - to begin a new GM Small Car Project. The challenge was to "'do it like a business.' The project became known as the Saturn project," he said. "In 1985, it became the Saturn Corp. and a high point in my career was in September 1985 when I joined Saturn Corporation as the business systems and systems integration manager, reporting to Reid Rundell, executive vice president. I worked there until 1987."

A buyout offer in 1987 offered him new professional freedom. White began his own company, Business Kenetics Inc., in 1988 and joined Kettering as a faculty member in 1989. "I came here to design the Information Systems concentration in the Business Program and, as they say, the rest is history."

White spent the next 17 years showing his undergraduate and graduate students the keys to effective strategic business management. "Without them, you can't do the rest," he warned.

He spent six years as the director of Kettering University's Business program and "having fun just enjoying our students." He was faculty moderator in 2000 during Kettering University's Curriculum Reform. He has been active representing the University in the Society for Information Management - Detroit Chapter (a group of Southeastern Michigan Chief Information Officers) and is one of only six Fellows in the country in the MBAA International Society for the Advancement of Information Systems (SAIS), where he served with distinction as Special Projects Chair for the organization.

But was it time to retire? "Yes," White said, "all my friends have told me that I would know when it was time, and they are right." From a more amusing perspective, he said, "all my numbers aligned." His first day of work at GM was June 25, and his last day of work for the Spring 2006 term at Kettering University was June 25. He started his co-op school/work experience in 1962; he will be 62 as he starts retirement. He came to campus as a student at the end of his 17th year; he will leave teaching at the end of his 17th year. Born in 1944, he is retiring from a 44-year career. "If I would have waited to retire, it would have messed up all my numbers," he chuckled.

He and wife Anita plan to travel, to explore new restaurants and to spend time with their family: son Wesley and his wife, Pamela and two grandsons, in West Lafayette, Ind.; and son Curtis in Madison, Wis. Spoiling their two grandsons is, of course, a priority. Retirement is an endeavor to fondly pursue.

"You have to remember," White added, "I'm a graduate of this school where we practice stopping and starting. At school for six weeks, I would stop school and start work. At work for six weeks I would, of course, stop work and start school. So in my mind I'm not quitting work, I'm starting retirement."

White will continue to be connected with Kettering University's future - as an alumnus, retiree, and even as an adjunct lecturer in Graduate Studies (MSMO) program teaching the Integrative Capstone Project Course (MFGO659) as he has been for more than four years.

Written by Patricia Mroczek
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