Detroit Detour

William Powell

When dreams take a detour, it’s best to enjoy the ride. Who better to vouch for this pearl of wisdom than an IUP alumnus who’s also one of the highest executives at General Motors?

William Powell, who currently serves as GM’s North America vice president for Industry-Dealer Affairs, earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from IUP in 1969.

“My intention was to be a teacher, I always wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “But once I graduated, I had to go into the military, and I never had a chance to teach.  The education received at Indiana prepared me well for a career in teaching, but even though that never happened, there are parallels between teaching and elements needed as a leader."

“Teaching preparation gives you good fundamentals in communicating, delivering a message, and influencing people for the good,” Powell said. “I learned the value of that as an officer in the U.S. Army and in my various managerial jobs at GM.”

As the most highly placed minority manager within GM, Powell used an education in Education to build a stellar career in American business.

William Powell

Powell (circled) with KDR brothers in the 1967 Oak.

After his discharge from the Army, Powell earned a master’s degree in Industrial Management at Pacific Lutheran University in 1975 and shortly thereafter joined GM’s Buick Division as an employee-in-training. He worked his way up through various managerial posts within GM, gaining experience and national perspective—and attending the Harvard Executive Development Program in 1987—before moving into his current role in 1994.

Today, Powell’s main responsibility remains developing and maintaining relationships between the corporate headquarters and its dealer network across North America. Powell also has responsibility for a more global outlook, taking principles of managing the North American dealer network and applying them to GM’s worldwide operations.

William Powell

In 2004, Powell, right, and Rod Gillum, another GM executive, accepted the Circle of Humanitarian Award from American Red Cross representative Kathleen Loehr.

Powell acknowledges the power of his undergraduate studies at IUP as the springboard to his later accomplishments within one of the world’s largest and most legendary companies.

“I attended Indiana during a very interesting time,” he said. “The Vietnam War was going on. Indiana was a fairly conservative school at the time, but it had its contingent of strange and interesting people. I remember the first time I came to see Indiana. I thought it was a beautiful campus, in a very nice setting. It certainly was different than Philadelphia, where I grew up."

“I was one of only seven African-American students attending the college then, I learned later,” Powell noted. “I made some really great friends and joined Kappa Delta Rho. Most of my friends were from the Pittsburgh area, and we had the typical language barriers—I called it soda, and they tried to convert me to calling it pop, that kind of thing."

“I thought it was a somewhat idyllic situation, although it was 1969 and I was in ROTC, so I knew what was going to happen to me after graduation,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I ended up in the infantry, stationed in Germany. Never was sent to Vietnam. Was honorably discharged as a captain in the U.S. Army."

“The tumult of the time created intellectual stimulation for me,” Powell reflected. “The discipline of getting a degree, of learning to learn, was what college was all about. If you embrace that fundamental idea, you can enjoy a lifetime of learning."

“IUP made me want to continue to learn about going into fields you might have never thought of before,” he said. “Just because you start out in one area, like I did with Education, doesn’t mean you will or should end up there. Stuff happens, and you move in different directions. You come to a fork in the road, you make your choice, and you keep going."

“If I’ve learned anything, or have any advice to give current students or my fellow alumni, it’s to enjoy the hell out of life,” said the lifelong learner and adapter, who lives with his wife and their twin daughters in the greater Detroit area. “Because it’s not a dress rehearsal, it’s for real.”

In other words, when a new path opens up, it just means the journey has gotten a little more interesting. Hit the gas, and enjoy the ride.

Tim Hayes ’82 is a communications consultant and freelance writer.