Hackworth Hangs it Up at GM He goes out as either a goat or hero, take your pick Don Hackworth learned a tough lesson as a high school quarter-back in Ohio that he never forgot.

"My coach said that when there's one man between you and the goal line, you've got to run into him if you're going to score," he recalls.

Mr. Hackworth's 38-year career at General Motors Corp., where he rose to the top manufacturing post and tangled frequently with both GM's brass and the United Auto Workers union, comes to an end on April 1 when he retires. He turns 64 this month.

"I guess I've made a career of running into everyone ... taking on people," he says with a hearty chuckle. Among those he faced down: Former GM Chairman Roger B. Smith. It was during the early 1980s while Mr. Hackworth was serving as president of GM of Canada Ltd. "We'd built 10,000 cars and shipped them to Iraq, but the deal fell through. Roger wanted to junk them, but I didn't want to do that. I got in a little trouble, but we brought them back, fit them to meet Canadian emissions standards and sold them in Canada."

Feisty and self-assured, Donald E. Hackworth almost didn't join GM directly after receiving his degree from Ohio State University in 1963. "It was the worst interview I ever had," he says. He was called in to apply for a graduate-in-training job at GM's Delco Moraine Div. in Dayton, OH. "I was an auto mechanic at the time, and when they called I jumped into my '50 Mercury with the tied-down back doors and arrived in a greasy uniform, and immediately got into a big argument with the HR (human resources) guy."

But he also got the job - and a chance to play catcher on the Delco Moraine softball team. Before entering Ohio State he served five years as a submariner, advancing to petty officer first class as a radioman. "We had a cook on the sub who could throw a pitch 100 miles per hour; it would dance," he says. No one else wanted to catch the hot stuff, so he switched from infielder to catcher, demonstrating a trait that characterizes his GM career: Handling hot potatoes.

His most celebrated confrontation came during 1998 when workers at GM's Flint Automotive Div. struck when GM tried to move tooling from the Flint facility to a plant in Mansfield, OH. The 54-day walkout reportedly cost GM $2 billion.

As the corporation's top manufacturing executive, Mr. Hackworth tried to make GM's case in a series of radio commercials where he came off as excessively strident. Critics say he may well have hindered the negotiations, lengthening the shutdown.

"I think that strike was a watershed for both the UAW and GM," he says. "It was very costly, but ever since, we've had much better working relationships. Was I too tough? I held myself accountable; no one gained; no one wanted it to happen."

Moreover, Mr. Hackworth says his relationship with UAW President Stephen P. Yokich was not as icy as portrayed. Over the years "Steve and I would sit down and talk about how to handle disputes. I think we believed each other, and that there were elements of trust. But we (neither side) can afford (long shutdowns) anymore" because of GM's shrinking market share.

Mr. Hackworth retires as senior vice president and group executive of the GM North America Car Group. Under a reorganization last fall, his successor, Gary Cowger, takes responsibility for both car and truck manufacturing.

Labor relations also comes under Mr. Cowger, pulling together for the first time manufacturing management and the people who negotiate the contracts (see WAW-Oct.'00, p.108). Some observers think the Flint strike may have been averted if that move had been made earlier.

Mr. Hackworth has spent much of his career facing the union over the bargaining table. That comes with the manufacturing territory. He rose quickly at Delco Moraine, becoming works manager in 1977, then taking a year off to complete the senior management training program at Stanford University.

From 1979-'81 he served as general manufacturing manager at Oldsmobile Div. in Lansing, MI, where he was Mr. Cowger's boss. GM was looking for someone to manage its old St. Louis, MO, assembly plant, and Mr. Hackworth tried to persuade a reluctant Mr. Cowger to take the assignment. "I told Gary to meet me at the Night Cap, a favorite Lansing watering hole, at 6 p.m. I put a bottle of whiskey on the table and told him `You're not leaving until you take that job.'" His ploy worked.

Mr. Hackworth gained public prominence with the GM-Canada post, which brought with it a GM vice presidency. After three years there, he took charge of the Buick Div. in Flint, then joined the former Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac Group as Lansing Automotive Div. general manager for five years, assuming the same position at the Flint Automotive Div. in 1991. Next he took top jobs at Cadillac and then the Midsize and Luxury Car Group, finally rising to head the NAO Car Group in 1997. In October 1998 he was elevated to the job he now leaves.

His observations on departing:

* Oldsmobile. GM's decision to phase out its oldest division "was a sad day for me," he says, recalling his long association with Olds. In the '80s "we were selling a million cars each year; it was the most powerful franchise in the world. And Olds now has its strongest lineup ever. But it's one of those things where you can lose your way. We were getting younger people, but it was costly. We had to look at where we were putting our money."

* Manufacturing's future. "There's going to be more deproliferation of platforms and components. Toyota and Honda keep their (basic) architectures a long time; they don't change the black metal (under the skin), but they reskin to develop new models. That reduces captial requirements, and we're making major advances in that direction."

Mr. Hackworth hasn't decided what he'll do in retirement. He's a racing fan, plays golf and has a boat at his Hilton Head, SC, home. He also has homes in Toronto and suburban Detroit. He's interested in constitutional law and may take a fling at furthering his education, possibly in the U.K.

And he's also "buying" his first vehicles in a long time: A Corvette convertible, a Cadillac DeVille DTS and a GMC Envoy.

"I could be a goat or a hero," he says of his long GM career, "but I'm not gonna brag about being either one."