Harry Pearce relaxes as he poses for photos in the cockpit of the Precept concept car. As the photographer bustles around the cluttered room, General Motors' vice chairman chats with onlookers.
A lawyer by trade, Pearce has emerged as the automaker's chief spokesman for 'green' powertrains. And the Precept, GM's hybrid-powered concept of a fuel-efficient family sedan, gave Pearce a chance to demonstrate his recovery from a life-threatening disease.
A year ago, during the Detroit auto show, Pearce introduced the Precept to hundreds of automotive journalists. Speaking for 45 minutes without a written text or electronic script, the 58-year-old executive described the car, the powertrain and the company's environmental policies. It was a remarkable performance for a man still undergoing treatment for leukemia.
Pearce makes a few concessions to the disease that was first diagnosed in 1998. He still travels, and he still works during the weekends. But he no longer maintains the 12-hour workdays common for senior executives. Pearce prefers to leave work at 6 p.m. to have dinner at home with his son, a 25-year-old GM engineer.
Pearce says his disease forced him to evaluate his life. As he recovered, he vowed to spend more time with his family and friends. 'People are more creative, more energized when they have a balance between life and work,' he says. 'In the past, you got rewarded for working long hours regardless of the quality of your work.'
But one should not assume that Pearce is taking it easy. Several years ago, former CEO Jack Smith asked him to become a champion for new technology within General Motors. In a company such as GM, the bureaucracy sometimes stifles innovation.
Pearce started with safety technology, which he has grown familiar with during his years defending GM in product liability lawsuits. At GM, he successfully advocated the adoption of daytime running lights and antilock brakes as standard equipment. 'For 15 years I did nothing but defense of automotive products,' Pearce says. 'The safety role was a natural, since I was heavily involved in safety issues.'
At the urging of Smith and others, Pearce began to study hybrid powertrains and fuel cells. Pearce urged the company to consolidate its fuel cell research. 'We were quite fragmented,' Pearce says. In 1997, the company consolidated its efforts into two research centers in New York and Germany. Now, General Motors is preparing to commercialize ParadiGM, its hybrid powertrain. The company will introduce the technology in a production vehicle in 2004. At that point, Pearce will be 61. Will Pearce retire before GM puts fuel cells into mass production? He is not saying.
'Retire? I don't know. Three years ago, I would have said I'd work forever. Now things like career become less important, and friends and family are more important. Maybe it's time for me to help others.'