Humbly Powerful: Opening up about Business, Hunting, and Enjoying the Outdoors in South Texas
When Ed Whitacre was a young man, attending Texas Tech University, a friend of his asked him for a favor. He was about to make the long drive from school to his hometown of Ennis, Texas, and there was a young lady on campus who needed a lift home to Forth Worth.
“A friend called and said that she had a late final and no ride home, and would I take her,” he said. “That was basically it. We hit it off on the drive and talked the entire four hours to Forth Worth.”
Fifty-five years later, that young woman from the car ride, his now-wife Linda, still rides along with him from San Antonio and up the picturesque dirt road to their ranch in Pearsall, carrying on the same conversations they’ve connected over for five decades. These days, their time is divided between San Antonio and Pearsall, but their story that has taken them from young college kids in love to now is a tale of adventure, helping to shape the nation and building a tight-knit family.
Ed’s rise to success all began when he realized he was more of a business leader than an engineer. Right out of college, he took a job with Southwestern Bell as an engineer but quickly realized where he really wanted to be in the company. “I majored in engineering mainly because I knew I could get a job right out of college, but I quickly learned that I liked working with people, and I was fortunate to be working for a large company that had a lot of different career tracks,” he said.
Throughout the next two decades, Whitacre would rise up through Southwestern Bell, eventually becoming the Chief Financial Officer, then President, chairman, and CEO. It was then that he brought the company to San Antonio, continuing growth by buying up companies such as Pacific Bell, Ameri- Tech, and Bell South. Whitacre was also at the helm when Southwestern Bell started up cellular service companies, acquiring AT&T Wireless when it bought out AT&T.
“Our goal was to make AT&T the best telecommunications company in the world,” he said. “When Apple was preparing to release the iPhone, we struck a 5-year exclusive deal with them, and we sold the hell out of them.”
The ability to lead and put together teams that work well together is a natural talent for Whitacre, something that proved successful with AT&T, but also in other, unique endeavors. When General Motors went into bankruptcy, the Obama administration knew Ed was the guy to call to come in and fix the situation. His keen ability to get a sense of someone’s character is a big part of his ability to lead successfully. Among many other savvy, refined business traits, Ed has always been a good judge of character in employees. His ability to read a person’s Emotional Quotient and Intelligence Quotient when meeting them was crucial when he arrived to step up to the challenge at GM. Upon his arrival, the company had already dismantled its human resources department, so lining up employees to bring the company back to life was like starting from scratch.
“I didn’t have any records to go on, so I just had to start the process of, ‘well who do you think a lot of ?,’ then bring them in for interviews and see if you get that feeling that this is the right person for the job,” Whitacre said. “I can’t really explain it. It’s just a feeling I get.” One year after filing for bankruptcy and bringing in Whitacre, GM earned $1.3 billion and began paying back the government’s bailout. His experiences of leading AT&T and GM prompted him to also add “author” to his resume when he penned the book, “American Turnaround: Reinventing AT&T and GM and the Way We Do Business in the USA.”
Throughout his time in business, Whitacre’s work meant countless moves for his family. As his daughters, Jessica and Jennifer, grew up, they moved to six different schools in 12 years, which wasn’t always easy. “You’re essentially starting all over again,” he said. “When the girls got to high school was when the moves were really tough, but as a family, we just always discussed that we would move where Dad’s job took us. They’ve both turned out to be such amazing people, and I’m just beyond proud of them.”
Connecting with people, whether in a professional setting or for pleasure, has always been a big part of Whitacre’s life, so much so that Business Week reported in 1999 that he didn’t even have a computer in his office because he preferred making real connections with people. His ability to connect also gave him much fulfillment and happiness in the way of service to others.
Along with supporting the United Way, Salvation Army and more, Ed’s always had a special place in his heart for the Boy Scouts of America organization and has volunteered his time at the local level, and as the President of the national organization for two years. “I feel like it’s the best program for young kids in America,” he said. “I got to be really good friends with those involved, and I marveled at their dedication. I got enthralled with it and just how good the programs were.” As a young boy, Ed participated in scouting himself and always loved the outdoors.
His grandfather taught him how to hunt and fish around ten years old, and he got his first shotgun, a bolt action Mossberg, for Christmas when he was 14. His love of the outdoors helped him make a lot of friends throughout his moves in life, and since hanging up his business suits for good in 2011, the ranch has become his little slice of retirement perfection. Instead of heading into executive committee meetings or jumping on planes to discuss launching the iPhone with Steve Jobs, Whitacre now heads out in the morning to hunt, followed by his dog, Stella, a British Labrador Retriever. While he’s not deer hunting anymore, he thoroughly enjoys duck and dove hunting. He’s the proud owner of many guns, but his favorite, at the moment, is a Winchester SX3 20-gauge.
“We’ve got mourning dove and white wing here on the ranch,” he said. “I’ve planted some different fields of sunflowers here so I can hunt one field and rest it the next day but still have a place to hunt. I clean everything I shoot and take it to people who will eat it.”
Whitacre chose Pearsall for his ranch because he says the habitats in the area are excellent, with a nice mix of trees, bushes, and lakes. Throughout his 15 years of owning the ranch, he’s done a lot of work to preserve the wildlife habitats and make it a superb place to hunt and fish. “I think it’s important to take care of the land,” he said. “I built lakes here at the ranch and stocked them with bass and bluegills. I’m a freshwater fisherman. I’m over the era of having bass boats – now I have little bitty John boat.”
When he’s not catching anything, Ed may be found up on a tractor or bulldozer on the land helping out. He loves keeping busy, and now with more time on his hands in retirement, enjoys showing his grandchildren the ways of the land on the ranch. His daughters and their families come down to the ranch for Thanksgiving, and his 11-year-old grandson, Eli, shot his first duck with “Ba” this past year. “He loves coming down here to hunt with me,” Ed said with pride.
While he may be spending more time doing the things he loves, Whitacre still actively mentors and gives back to the business world. He taught at Texas Lutheran University for a while and still consults and does guest speaking on leadership, relationships, and how to treat customers.
Spending his time between San Antonio and Pearsall, Whitacre said he prefers to stay local these days. “I’ve been to Argentina to hunt and to Africa, but I didn’t end up shooting anything because it was just too beautiful,” he said. “I’ve been everywhere I’ve wanted to go. The older I get, the more I like to stick around the ranch.” While at the ranch, he’s also helping the Department of the Interior, clipping duck wings, and sending them in to be assessed.
What can young people who are starting in their careers learn from such a business powerhouse like Whitacre? “When a door opens, walk through it,” he said. “I came to my career with a little bit of ability, but it was all about being in the right place at the right time.” Soft-spoken and humble, Ed claims his life isn’t all that exciting, which is funny coming from a man who has done tremendous things in his career.
To the young person getting started in hunting, he says, “be safe and appreciative that you can hunt.” And to the young family who may have to make a move for a job, Whitacre said success in starting all over again is all about making connections with others. “It really can be tough,” he said. “It’s like starting from scratch, but finding people you have things in common with can really help. I was always fortunate to be around others in my career, and we were able to meet friends through our kids and their friends as well. While spending a lot of time moving to different places like Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas, I was fortunate to meet a lot of people who hunt, and they all became friends. I just really love being outdoors, always have.”