Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Frank Fountain: The DaimlerChrysler Interview

with Kam Williams

Headline: A “Frank” Chat with a Captain of Industry

W. Frank Fountain is the President of the DaimlerChrysler Corporation Fund, the automobile company’s philanthropic organization. On January 1, 2004, he was also named Senior Vice President, External Affairs and Public Policy (Auburn Hills) of the Chrysler Group. In that capacity, Mr. Fountain is responsible for maintaining and coordinating DaimlerChrysler’s interface with state and local governments across the country.
His other areas of responsibility include Community Relations and National Education Programs. Since joining Chrysler in 1973 as an Investment Analyst, Fountain has held numerous positions of increasing responsibility in Chrysler’s Corporate Controller’s Office, the Treasurer’s Office and Chrysler’s Government Affairs Office in Washington, D.C.
Born in Brewton, Alabama on July 17, 1944, Frank, Jr. was the eldest of Willie Frank and Janie Fountain's seven children. The Fountain family operated a small farm in the town of Tunnel Springs which is where he learned the value of what he refers to as 'working hard and working smart.'
Mr. Fountain holds a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Hampton University, an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, and an honorary doctorate of public service degree from Central Michigan University. Prior to embarking on his illustrious professional career, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Bengal, India, applying the lessons he had learned on his family's farm to aid in the improvement of agricultural techniques.

KW: Hi Frank. Thanks for the time. I don’t know whether you’re aware that you’re speaking with a fellow Wharton alumnus.
FF: Great!
KW: Given your being such an important pillar of the community in Detroit, first off, I have to ask you about your embattled Mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick. Do you think he should step down?
FF: Well, Kam, our focus for quite a long time now has been on the economic revitalization of the city. Mayor Kilpatrick’s administration played a significant role in that, as did [his predecessor] Mayor Archer’s administration, along with the business community. I expect that effort to continue. We have good momentum that has been the result of very hard work by all. And we hope that the issues surrounding Mayor Kilpatrick will be resolved. In the meantime, we are focused on continuing the progress that has been contributing to the revitalization of the city.
KW: What did you think when Senator McCain while campaigning in Michigan said that things were going to get worse there before they get better.
FF: Well, Detroit is a tough town. We’ve been through many difficult economic cycles before. What we’re experiencing now, with the housing slump, the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the escalating price of oil, are all issues beyond our control. But we’ve survived many downturns before, and I think the smart money is guessing that we will survive this one.
KW: Many political pundits are suggesting that if Michigan’s Democratic delegates aren’t seated at the convention, the state will definitely go for McCain in November. Do you agree?
FF: No, I think the people of Michigan knew what we were getting into when we voted to change the primary date. So, it’s only fair if the Democratic National Committee is going to enforce what it made clear at the outset. I think we should take our medicine and live with it.
KW: What role did your service in the Peace Corps play in shaping you?
FF: Kam, it had an immense impact on my life. I grew up a poor farm boy in Southwest Alabama who had some sense that the world was bigger and wider than just my little neck of the woods. Being inspired by Dr. Ralph Bunche, the first black person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, I decided to start a career in the foreign service, and I felt that the Peace Corps was the way to do it. I think my life has been richer because of that volunteer effort. It was not well understood at the time by my family and friends, but I would recommend that kind of service to anyone today. Whether international or domestic, there’s no greater reward that one can receive than contributing their blood, sweat and time to their fellow human beings.
KW: What did you do while over there in India?
FF: I was in West Bengal teaching farmers how to grow high-yielding varieties of rice.
KW: Have you been back since the Subcontinent’s economic boom of the last ten years or so?
FF: I have not, Kam, but I have remained involved with the organization and just last week I was informed that on June 19th I am going to be presented the Director’s Award, the American Peace Corps’s highest honor.
KW: Congratulations! You recently presented Spike Lee with Chrysler’s Sixth Annual Behind the Lens Award for excellence in the entertainment industry. Why Spike?
FF: He is one of today’s most prolific and respected artists. He has helped launched the careers of many, including household names like Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington. Spike has had a major and very positive impact on the film industry and for over 20 years he’s been willing to address issues and stories others have shied away from. So, he was a natural selection for this year’s award.
KW: He’s not too controversial a character for a Fortune 500 corporation?
FF: Well, Spike has certainly been synonymous with thoughtfulness. He’s been provocative, and an activist. We believe that, sometimes, it’s important to make change in society. So, as a good corporate citizen interested in everyone having an opportunity to display and show their talents, we felt Spike Lee deserved this award.
KW: What sort of reception did you receive as a black man upon entering the corporate world after you graduated from Wharton with an MBA in 1973? That must have been a very tough time to try to integrate the white-collar business world.
FF: There certainly weren’t many blacks in corporate America at the time. But as you know very well, Wharton prepares you to go into the corporate world and lead, not just get a job, but to lead. I understood that very well. I’ve never been just a follower. And even though there weren’t any great African-American mentors to hitch my wagon to, I made my way. Whether or not people are standing at the door with welcoming arms, what’s important is that you get in and demonstrate your abilities and earn your rightful recognition and place. That’s what I’ve done at Chrysler, and it’s been a very long and rewarding career.
KW: What was the last book you read?
FF: I must say that I buy books regularly, I have quite a collection, and I’ve started many books, but I can’t remember the last one I got all the way through.
KW: Is there a question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
FF: [Laughs] That’s a great question, but no.
KW: You were on Detroit’s School Board for a number of years. What do you see as the remedy for the low African-American graduation rate we’re witnessing all over the country nowadays?
FF: Kam, I wish I had the answer for that. The answer isn’t just with the kids. It’s also with teachers, the principals, and the parents. And beyond that, it’s with the culture to a certain extent. Most of our young people are being born to single parents. Those statistics are absolutely startling. If you can’t read by the time you’re six years-old, the chances of being able to complete school successfully is very small, and the likelihood of ending up in prison is very great. So, I don’t think it’s poverty per se. If you put a kid in a very caring environment with caring and concerned teachers, he or she is going to learn and have a great chance of breaking out of the cycle. Unfortunately, most of our educational system is a bureaucracy. And the problem isn’t just limited to Detroit. We find it in Baltimore, Chicago, Washington, DC, Los Angeles and elsewhere. In most of these cities, the destinies of black kids are in the hands of black folks. We can no longer point the finger. We may be short of resources in some of our school districts, but we’re not so short as to be unable to teach. There is nothing more important or vital to the black community than making sure that all of our kids get an education. Nothing. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to run, Kam.
KW: Thanks, Frank, for a great chat.
FF: Same here, and I’d be happy to talk to you anytime in the future.
KW: Yeah, we’ll have to do it again.

Named by Detroit Crain’s as one of the most connected business leaders in Detroit, Frank has given back to the community as a member of many business and professional organizations and by serving on numerous boards of directors, including:

Detroit Public Schools Board of Education (4/99 - 2/03)
Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce – Vice Chair
Museum of African American History
Hudson - Webber Foundation
Michigan Manufacturers Association
Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan
WTVS – Channel 56 (Public Television)
Music Hall
The Wharton School Board of Overseers
Hampton University Board of Trustees - Chair
Metro Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau
Citizens Research Council of Michigan - Chair
International Visitors Council of Metro Detroit
The Detroit Investment Fund
New Detroit – Vice Chair
Dennis W. Archer Foundation
Economic Club of Detroit
Corporate Council on Africa – Vice Chair
Detroit Metro Sports Commission
Focus Hope Advisory Board
Metropolitan Affairs Coalition (MAC) – Past Chair
Mackinac Center for Public Policy Advisory Board
Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies – Vice Chair
Business Council of Alabama

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