Steve Sharf, who made his mark as a manufacturing whiz atand later at , died Saturday (Aug. 31). He was 92 and still active in business and philanthropic activities.
Sharf retired in 1986 as executive vice president ofand CEO Lee Iacocca’s confidante on manufacturing and other corporate projects. The following February he joined Ward’s Auto World magazine as a columnist, writing his “Common Sense” commentary for the next 15 years.
Manufacturing naturally was his primary subject, but he also deftly covered a variety of topics and gained a strong and devoted following.
In his first column, he attributed his success over 40 years in the auto industry to always seeking “common-sense” solutions.
“I never went for high-flying, pie-in-the-sky inventions…I never got carried away with the latest fads. I would try to understand the conditions that existed, then I would do what had to be done to be successful and still retain a competitive solution.”
Sharf was instrumental in numerous projects at Chrysler. He led the industry in adopting 2-sided galvanized body panels, a development that practically eliminated rust.
When he needed additional capacity to build Chrysler’s M-body fullsize cars, he turned to American Motors, which had space in its Kenosha, WI, assembly plant. That relationship ultimately led to acquisition of AMC and its prized Jeep brand in 1987.
When Chrysler was looking for a new technology and corporate headquarters to replace its aging complex in Highland Park, MI, Sharf suggested to Iacocca that 500 acres was available in Auburn Hills, 25 miles (40 km) north and adjacent to Oakland University, where Sharf served as a longtime supporter and trustee.
Despite onerous interest rates and its fairly recent recovery from bankruptcy, Iacocca approved $1 billion for the project. The 5.3 million-sq.-ft. (462,000-sq.-m) technology campus opened in 1991 and the headquarters complex in 1996.
After retiring, Sharf maintained an international consulting firm and stepped up his philanthropy that had for years consisted of support for Junior Achievement, the Boy Scouts and other organizations.
His largest gifts focused on Oakland University. In 2012 he pledged $21 million to OU for, among other activities, the School of Engineering and Computer Sciences and the new School of Medicine. He also provided a scholarship to the School of Business Administration and the lead cash for the university’s golf course, which bears his name.
But he was not finished. In June 2012 the Sharf Clubhouse opened at the golf course thanks to his $4 million donation.
That’s a far cry from the day he arrived in the U.S. in 1947 “when I didn’t have a cent in my pocket,” he once said.
Although he seldom spoke about it, as a young Jewish boy in Nazi Germany he managed to survive by using his wits, penchant for all things mechanical, a flair for acting and the aid of sympathetic Germans.
After the war he completed his studies in tool-and-die design and mechanical engineering at the Technical University in Berlin, then set his sights on the U.S.
Arriving in Buffalo, NY, he soon joinedas a die maker and climbed rapidly in the now-closed plant, later moving to the Chicago assembly plant where he rose to assistant superintendent.
Sharf joined Chrysler in 1958 as a master mechanic at its Twinsburg, OH, stamping plant, later moving to its Cleveland engine plant as manager of manufacturing.In 1968 he arrived at Highland Park headquarters and by 1977 he had climbed to general plants manager-stamping in the Stamping and Assembly Div. with 20,000 employees under his command.
After Iacocca was fired at Ford and became Chrysler’s CEO in 1978, he promoted Sharf to vice president-Engine and Casting Div. and ultimately executive vice president-manufacturing.
Sharf’s wife, Rita, died in 2001. He married Patti Finnegan, a longtime associate, in May this year.
Often colorful and witty, Sharf once wrote in Ward’s Auto World: “I always will remember the words of my father when I was sitting down on the job thinking.
“He told me thinking was for horses; they have bigger heads and, besides that, they can wiggle their ears, and (that) I should just use my common sense.”
That he did, until the end.