Hackett brings 'common touch' to UM athletics

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Jim Hackett led a turnaround at Steelcase in Grand Rapids before retiring in February of 2013.

In a lunch line at Steelcase Inc. a few years ago, Jim Hackett and a couple of his Michigan football alums from the 1970s shuffled past plates and silverware and to a service window where Hackett ordered a turkey sandwich on whole wheat.

Bob Thornbladh and John Wangler, who had played for the Wolverines during Hackett's time there and were visiting their buddy during a day at Steelcase, watched as the company's CEO waited for his sandwich.

"He was wearing khakis and Rockports and pretty soon he finds himself in conversation with this lady behind the counter," said Thornbladh, who is owner and president of a telecommunications company in Ypsilanti Township. "And it was, 'Hi, Jim, how are you? How's your grandson?'

"And Jim says, 'Great, Maria, how's your mother doing? And how is such-and-such.'

"He knew her and her family," Thornbladh recalled. "He's the chairman of Steelcase, and she's a lady who works in the cafeteria. And what it showed me was how this man had such a common touch. He's confident in himself, but he cares deeply about others."

Jim Hackett speaks after being introduced as Michigan athletic director last week.

A former college football lineman's knack for weaving personal and professional thread into a more pleasing tapestry clearly was in line with thoughts shared last week by University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, who introduced Hackett, 59, as Michigan's interim athletic director following the exit of Dave Brandon, who was under artillery fire from alums and students.

"The AD became the story," Schlissel said, speaking of Brandon at Hackett's unveiling, "instead of Michigan athletics being the story. What happened is the controversy aspects weren't going away. They seemed to be piling on."

Brandon departed after a near-five-year stint fraught of late with a disturbing mix of bad football (the Wolverines are 4-5 and head coach Brady Hoke is under siege in Ann Arbor) and awkward events that steadily frayed relationships, which included a flap over raised prices for student football tickets.

Schlissel replaced Brandon with a man who played football at Michigan and whose business background, as well as his relationships in each sphere, made him a natural choice for a president who only four months ago began his tenure at UM.

Hackett cohorts who have known him since he arrived in Ann Arbor in 1973 from London, Ohio, outside Columbus, call the move shrewd.

"I'll be honest, when I heard it was Jim I couldn't think of anyone better," said Jerry Hanlon, the longtime assistant coach at Michigan who worked with hundreds of Wolverines offensive linemen, including Hackett.

"He was there in the press box for the Penn State game (Oct. 11, at Michigan Stadium) and we had a chance to visit, and of course nothing like (his interim appointment) even came across my mind. But when I heard about it, the first thing I thought was what I knew from his days here.

"Team player," Hanlon said. "He would do anything to help the team. We played him at guard and at center, and he wasn't the greatest athlete in the world, but he gave you every bit of himself. I'll tell you — he was tough. You don't beat your head against a wall (blocking) every day at practice and in games and not be a tough kid.

"But number one, for me, is that he's a very cordial man. And he will listen. I don't know anyone they could have picked who would be better."

Tom Seabron, a Wolverines linebacker from 1975-78, worked against Hackett during practices and sat through team meetings with him. He saw just enough of the older lineman to appreciate the personal pluses Hackett displayed, which became more apparent when Hackett rose at Steelcase.

"He was always kind of a gentle giant to me when we played together," said Seabron, a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley in Farmington Hills. "I would give him very high marks for his character, and for being a kind of quiet leader. And not only for what he's been able to do at Steelcase.

"There's nothing negative about this guy."

Steelcase is a 102-year-old company, based in Grand Rapids, which over generations became an elite provider of office furniture, design and technology. But the company was suffering in 2008 and Hackett was stuck with a mandate to streamline and re-craft an enterprise that had been suffering not only from a recession, but also from outmoded 20th-century ways.

Hackett announced his retirement in 2013 and formally departed the company at the end of February. Steelcase's second-quarter profits were its highest in a decade and last week, coincidentally on the day Hackett was named interim AD, the company's stock hit a 52-week high.

"We basically reduced employee size, between 40 and 50 percent, and reduced the operating and manufacturing blueprint," said Jerry Meter, a global account manager for Steelcase, who was a Wolverines linebacker from 1976-78 and later an assistant on coach Bo Schembechler's staff.

"But we still make more product today than we did back when we owned all those plants. What it tells you is that Jim's a very bright guy, and very good at hiring great talent. The leadership team behind him was exceptional. That group changed the way a company operated, but still kept a very tight-knit company.

"And I think that's one of the assets he brings to Ann Arbor. He knows good people."

Jim Hackett was a guard and center on the Michigan football team.

Fritz Seyferth happens to agree. Seyferth was a varsity fullback at Michigan from 1969-71 (freshmen were ineligible until 1972) and later joined Schembechler's staff as UM's recruiting coordinator before becoming executive associate athletic director.

Seyferth now heads Fritz Seyferth & Associates, a leadership training company in Ann Arbor. He marvels at the timing of Michigan's needs and Hackett's availability.

"Love it," Seyferth said. "He's the antidote Michigan needed at this particular time.

"Jim's got a collective perspective for shared ownership. He knows it's not his program, but their program. They (players, coaches, staffers, alumni, etc.) will be responsible for it and they'll do all the measuring.

"As part of the culture at UM," Seyferth said, "people have always been a priority. Goals have always been a priority. But there's a balance to that, which Jim understands."

Hackett's words at last week's press conference indicated he has a sense not only for Michigan's culture, but also for a job that initially will necessitate some fence-mending — and at least temporary relocation from his home in Grand Rapids (he is staying for now at an Ann Arbor hotel).

"Michigan has a stellar record of extraordinary performance, academically and athletically, and our potential is not in question here," Hackett said, speaking broadly ahead of more pointed remarks aimed at the student-ticket rift.

"This university is here for students. They are not just temporary residents of the Big House (Michigan Stadium). Rather, it's their home. We are first here for them."

Thornbladh echoed that sentiment, and commented on Hackett's predecessor, Brandon.

"He's a gifted guy, he really is," Thornbladh said of Brandon. "Some of it (rancor surrounding Brandon) didn't make a lot of sense to me. But the university exists for the students, and we need to embrace the students, and everything we do has to be for the students and for their development."

"We don't need to look to them as a revenue source. We need them in the stands as an important part of their experience.

"Those were Dave's values, and should not be obscured, and they are Jim Hackett's values.

"But I think Jim will stabilize the scene, all because of good leadership. The more everyone gets to know Jim Hackett, the more they'll like him."