By the age of 30, Joe Hinrichs had established himself as a boy wonder in auto manufacturing.
In 1996, as General Motors' youngest plant manager at age 29, he spearheaded an out-of-the-box turnaround of an inefficient GM Powertrain plant in Fredericksburg, Va. The result was written up in a Harvard Business School case study.
Despite his early success, the personable young executive with boundless reserves of energy had become restless, trapped in a corporate silo.
Seeking broader experience, he left GM for a two-year stint at Ryan Enterprises Group, a private equity firm in Chicago. While there he held multiple jobs and burnished his reputation as a manufacturing wunderkind as COO of Zollner Pistons.
"He did a great job. He was a rock star," says Pat Ryan Jr., then head of Ryan Enterprises and now CEO of Incisent Labs Group, a Chicago company that invests in startups and new technology.
Although Hinrichs, now 46, didn't know it, his progress was noticed elsewhere. Another auto company had an eye on him, and that interest would thrust him into the industry's upper echelons. Now Hinrichs is spearheading Ford Motor Co.'s vital effort to tackle its North American launch issues and quality problems.
When Hinrichs decided to leave private equity and return to the auto industry in 2000, he phoned Rick Wagoner, then CEO of GM. GM had sponsored Hinrichs' Harvard Business School M.B.A., so returning there was the obvious choice.
"They were very welcoming and offered me a number of positions," Hinrichs says. But his life was about to take an unexpected turn. "While I was in town, I got a call from somebody in Ford who I didn't know who said, 'Why don't you stop by?'"
That somebody was David Murphy, then head of human resources at Ford.
"He just introduced himself on the phone as 'I'm David Murphy from human resources at Ford.' I didn't know he was the head of human resources for all of Ford. I remember what he said to me: 'You know, I understand you're probably going back to GM, but we've heard great things about you. You've never been a free agent before, so you might as well just stop by and see what we're about. There's no cost to that.'
"So I did, and here I am."