James E. Farmer
As I look back over the past 40 years of my career, it seems like just yesterday that I was bestowed a B.S. degree with “all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining”. Those words were so impressive in 1967, and I was eagerly ready to join the real world of work in CORPORATE AMERICA the following month.As an African-American, joining a Fortune 25 company, I became a “first” in many areas. The Welcome mat was certainly at the front door, but there was no Welcome Committee. That was my first experience with INSTITUTIONAL RACE RELATIONS. I immediately started developing a survival strategy. I got involved: United Way, Jr. Chamber of Commerce, Mental Health and Mental Retardation and the Optimist Club to name a few. I soon became the FACE in the communities and the promotions followed.After nearly 10 years and three promotions, I decided to join General Motors, number one on the Fortune 500 list. By that time, I was a well known commodity in the Dayton, Ohio community.After three plus year with GM in Dayton, I was promoted and joined the Public Relations staff in St. Louis, as Manager Community Relations. My job was to facilitate a smooth transition with the communities, local government and the media as we closed a plant that represented 5% of the city’s tax base and employed 3,000 workers. I was known as the GM’s bad new guy. I used every public relations skill in the book to convince all parties that move was necessary and would help the state in the future. The plant was moving 35 miles west. Following that assignment I moved to Kansas City and within two years was promoted to Regional Public Relations Mgr. in Washington, DC. Now the big league, public policy, fuel economy, hazardous waste and other federal issues. I attended at least 30 black tie events a year and hosted the key executives from Detroit when in DC.After 5 years in Washington, I had to pay my dues to move to the Corporate Headquarters in Detroit. Oh how heartbreaking to get the news on a Friday, just before “happy hour”. Washington was a great assignment for experience with media, government, political, social and philanthropic.
My assignment in Detroit was focused on Major Corporate events and GM board relations. Ongoing interface with key officers and board of directors. When called to the chairman’s office, you had to have all the answers. This was truly a “cross” the T’s and “dot” the I’s. A lot of pressure but rewarding as I was able to show my skills.
One of my best assignments was Vice President, Communications at Saturn, the different kind of car and the different kind of Car Company. Just two years old when I arrived. Our mission/strategy was to keep a distant from the parent company. Major PR challenges included product recalls and the Saturn Home Coming, where we invited 28,000 vehicles back home with the owners. As the communications chief, there were request for speeches on the Saturn difference, from Harvard B School to the Netherland Auto Assn, to launching the vehicles in Japan. I made numerous trips to Tokyo before the media launch. Also gave the speech in Amsterdam. We instituted a fee based speaker’s bureau. And turn our Tennessee plant tour into the revenue generating business.
On the Corporate office again as Group Director Communications and Public Relations. The focus in internal communications as we began restructuring the sales and marketing organization for the first time since Alfred P. Sloan created it. The words “COMMON” and COST REDUCTION and CONSOLIDATION were often used to keep the employees informed.
The last major assignment before retiring was Vice President, Merchandising, Advertising and Communication. I had come full circle, as I started in advertising right out of the college, working n sales and marketing, a stint in Washington and the Saturn difference. I really considered myself the man with the experiences to get the job done. So not long after joining GMAC, we were hit with a lawsuit, alleging discriminatory lending practices that led to minorities paying more for auto financing. The media was preparing to have us for lunch.
After gathering all the facts from managements and making strong recommendation about the programs, I proceeded to take on media with facts and at the same time EDUCATE consumers about our finance industry. We became an industry leader in financial literacy programs and initiatives.
After nearly 40 years in the marketing, public relations and communications vineyards, I decided to hang it up and spend more time doing what I enjoy doing, that of reaching out to our young in hope that they too will earn ALL THE RIGHTS AND PRIVILEGES THEREUNTO APPERTAINING.