When we represented Duke University's Fuqua School of Business in the 1990s, we heard faculty and administrators alike wax poetic about their shining star, Rick Wagoner. At the time, Rick was rising through the ranks of America's (and the world's) largest car company, General Motors. And, he was emblematic of how far a Fuqua grad could go in the business world.
Fast forward to yesterday's Congressional hearings and, sadly, Mr. Wagoner has become an icon for the sagging American economy. Under his cautious, reactionary leadership, GM did just about everything wrong: pulling back from hybrid and electric cars, investing in gas-guzzling SUVs and Hummers, and waiting way too long to curtail excessive UAW pay scales and lifetime healthcare for former employees.
Yesterday, along with the leaders of Detroit's other two horribly-run car companies, Wagoner came before Congress to beg for a $25 billion bridge loan. To add insult to injury, he flew back-and-forth on GM's corporate jet. In fact, Wagoner and his peers have failed in all aspects of public relations.
Rick Wagoner's earned a spot alongside such other infamous American chief executives as Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap and Dennis Kozlowski. He didn't do anything illegal. Wagoner just didn't do anything smart or strategic, which is what top B-school grads are expected to do.
When business historians analyze the rise and fall of the American automobile industry, Wagoner will most likely have the final chapter and epilogue all to himself. As for the Fuqua School, I have to believe they've started shining the spotlight on other, more successful alums.