David Sergeant passed away last week. He was a very good friend. When I met Dave in 1988, he was a strategic planner working at General Motors’ New Center One building. I was 37 years old, and had just received an RFQ stating that General Motors wanted to benchmark its service parts operations; David was the initial gate-keeper. I traveled to Detroit to meet with him. We talked a lot, I listened a little. My position was that GM only needed to look at Toyota. They were the best, and I had lots of ancillary evidence to prove it. Dave did not fight me, in fact, he encouraged me to talk more and more. In a few weeks I was invited back to meet Dave’s boss, Stu Wagner.
Well, I did not land that one. But, I got something far more valuable: Dave Sergeant as a friend, and, eventually, Stu. We started talking regularly, sometimes about work. Mostly we talked about life, politics, religion, current events, and morality. Early on I realized that Dave was brilliant, and I love smart people.
Fast forward to 1992. Dave, being a planner, suspected that GM service parts operations could learn from an open benchmarking forum. He encouraged me to contact Toyota, Volvo, International (now Navistar), Deere, Ford, and Chrysler to form a well-rounded benchmark group. Working with Stu, he secured GM’s participation – which turned out to be critical in convincing Ford and Chrysler to join. The rest is history. The group now includes dozens of OEMs on four continents. GM moved from worst-in-class to best-in-class in more areas than productivity. Over the next 20 years, untold millions more dollars flowed to General Motors’ bottom line.
Not a bad track record for a planner. There are many more companies other than GM that have reason to thank Dave Sergeant. He was at the pivot point in making the NAPB/NASPC happen. Seen your productivity increase along with your quality? Whisper “thanks” to Dave.
Frequently, I am asked what I really think of General Motors. I respond not by describing their assets, products, or policies. I talk about their people. GM has some stunners. It is all about the people, and, believe me, it always has been. Those of you who knew Dave Sergeant recall that he was an idiosyncratic strategic planner who seemed unaware of corporate politics, who spoke his mind with conviction, who could articulate change and its implications far outside the safety zone, and who could support his positions with brilliant analytical insights. Dave did not tell you what you wanted to hear, but focused on what you needed to hear. He did not give up. He became a pest for issues that were critical to GM, and had years of patience. You could not wear him down. Dave was the least superficial person I’ve ever met. He did his job with little thought about what was in it for him. He was all about General Motors, and his loyalties were emblazoned on his sleeve. By the way, this speaks a lot for GM, too.
For some, planning is a punch-your-ticket assignment. For Dave, it was a candy store. I must admit, I love working with strategic planners and I cannot help but compare all I meet with Dave. Can they see as clearly as he saw? Can they figure it out? Do they know who can figure it out? Can they see change through to the end, and tolerate small failures along the way? Do they have the courage to do what is right for their company, not what’s convenient for them? Or, do they just look good in a suit?
Dave deeply loved his wife, Michele, and was very proud of her. In a magical photo of her in his office she looked as if she were on a Paris runway. Michele’s melodious voice on the answering machine was the consolation prize for calling the house when nobody was home. She still is our all-knowing “cat whisperer.” I followed the growth of his children, Carine and Craig, through his stories. He loved them dearly and was very proud of each.
I’m talking too much. For years I spoke with Dave every day and it was rarely about GM’s business. He simply dazzled me. And I will sorely miss him.
Dave’s obituary is at http://www.vtliving.com/obituaries/frames.htm, go to the Rutland Herald link. Memorial contributions may be made to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, PO Box 849168, Boston, MA 02284-9168.