The Turnaround Kid: What I Learned Rescuing America’s Most Troubled Companies

By Steve Miller
HarperCollins, 2008, 272 pages

CEOs rarely tell you anything about the roles that their spouses play in their lives and the contributions spouses make toward their success, and they never tell you about their first sexual encounter. Delphi Corporation Chairman and CEO Robert S. “Steve” Miller does all these things in The Turnaround Kid: What I Learned Rescuing America’s Most Troubled Companies. Throughout the book, he makes it clear that his wife, Maggie, who died in 2006, was his partner in business — as a truth teller, evaluator of people, and ethical advisor — as well as in marriage. Miller sees his series of high-profile jobs as being held by “us” rather than “me.”

Steve Miller was born to a wealthy professional family in Oregon that had amassed its fortune over three generations in the lumber industry. With a law degree from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford, he served his apprenticeship in the Ford Motor Company during the “whiz-kid” era of the 1960s. After extensive experience with burgeoning responsibilities in the Ford “Foreign Legion” in South America and the Asia-Pacific regions, he was drafted by Lee Iacocca and Gerry Greenwald (both ex-Ford executives) into the turnaround of Chrysler. He joined this 24/7 cause without even asking what he would be paid and reveled in the freedom from bureaucracy that corporate crises can bring. He honed his skills in arduous negotiations to get 400 lenders to sign off on Chrysler’s complex deal, learning to listen, explain, and treat everyone equally. In the process he discovered that turnaround specialist was the role that suited him best, allowing him to fuse work and passion while leaving the challenge of achieving a work–life balance to ever-resourceful Maggie.

With his reputation made by the success of the Chrysler rescue, Miller went on to a career of saving and rebuilding big enterprises in both the private and public sectors. The companies listed on his resume are some of North America’s best-known corporate basket cases — Olympia & York Developments, Morrison Knudsen, Federal-Mogul, Waste Management Inc., Bethlehem Steel, and, most recently, Delphi Corporation, the ill-fated parts spin-off from General Motors. (He also helped rescue the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.) Throughout these challenges Miller comes across as, to use a Yiddish term, a real mensch: the kind of guy who makes his own phone calls, meets with people in their offices rather than his, and eats in the company cafeteria, all in the interest of saving time, conveying sincerity, and building rapport.

The take-home message of this memoir is that there are talented people in troubled organizations who often have all the answers but usually are not focused on the right questions. The role of the turnaround manager is to understand and pose the key questions while freeing up the communication webs both inside and outside the organization. Steve Miller reaches for resources wherever they are to be found. For example, he relies heav­ily on his executive assistants to tell him about what’s really happening. If, as research suggests, leadership skills are best taught by tough assignments, influential bosses, and hardships, Steve Miller’s story is an excellent illustration of that learning process at work.

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