Like Lee Iacocca, he’s been called “the man who saved Chrysler.”
Mention that to United Auto Workers Vice President General Holiefield, and he flashes a boyish grin, then quickly cites others instrumental in the auto company’s turnaround: the UAW International Executive Board and former UAW President Ron Gettelfinger.
“No man is an island,” he says. “There are so many others who were very instrumental.”
With all UAW workers internationally in the Chrysler Division under his watch, and a host of directors, coordinators, and administrators who report directly to him, the 57-year-old Holiefield often finds himself logging 12-hour days around the globe, often with leaders in politics, business, and the auto industry.
His vocabulary is laden with words like termination, arbitration, and negotiation, and much of his work involves serious, bordering-on critical issues. He’s known to be aggressive, assertive, and downright tough. Despite that, and ignoring his potentially intimidating 6-foot-3 linebacker frame, he’s also said to be one of the most compassionate people you’ll ever meet.
Dressed in a muted-salmon silk crepe de Chine shirt, black-striped trousers, and tasteful jewelry, Holiefield settles into his riverfront office in Detroit to talk about himself, his job, and the livelihood of nearly 200,000 autoworkers worldwide.
Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in Middletown, Ohio, and predominantly raised in Inkster, Mich. My mom basically raised us herself with the help of my grandmother, who has gone on to glory. And, boy, what a beautiful woman she was. We had some rough times. But we had a lot of love and prayer, and we were taught to get along with each other and share what we had.
How did you get the name General?
You’ll find powerful names [in] my family tree. My [maternal] grandfather was Caesar. I actually didn’t find out my name was General until I was 18. I asked for my birth certificate to get my driver’s license and discovered my name was General. But I was Robert! My dad said he didn’t want me to have problems at school, didn’t want me to have fights. He may have even thought it was too powerful for me as a child. But I adorned one of my sons with it, and he hasn’t had a problem. My family still calls me Rob. [In his opening remarks after a tour of Detroit’s Jefferson North Assembly Plant in July, President Obama acknowledged Holiefield, saying, “Now that’s a name right there — General Holiefield.”]
How did you get involved with the union?
It was never a life dream of mine … but I got [angry] because I got fired from my job as a hi-lo driver at Chrysler’s Detroit Axle Plant, and I had to go to the union to get my job back. One thing led to another and … here I am.
Through your non-profit foundation, Leave the Light On, you are known to be a generous philanthropist, especially when it comes to children.
I was one of those unfortunate children who didn’t get a chance to experience a lot of things or have a lot of things because there were eight children in my family growing up in a household with a single mother. I thought to myself, if I was ever in a position to help children — to give them a better Christmas, just show them some sheer fun — it would become my priority. There are so many kids right here in the city who have never had an opportunity to see anything other than the concrete jungle.
Have you met President Barack Obama?
We’ve had a phone conversation. I was the second man on the phone with Ron Gettelfinger at the helm, and I was invited to take part in the conversation. I was very delighted to just say ‘hello.’
What about your personal life?
I now reside in what I guess would be considered an upscale community in Macomb [County]. I have a four-bedroom home with very well-manicured lawns. My wife, Marlene, and I have been married 30 years. My children are General Jr., Shaelyn, and Chalfonte. My wife heads up legal services for the UAW, and my youngest son is kind of following in my footsteps; he‘s a committeeman.
What do you do to relax?
Fishing, reading, fixing things around the house, and watching anything on The History Channel. I also love riding my chopper, Fat Daddy Bourget.
What kind of car do you drive?
A Chrysler 300C. I also own a 2009 Dodge Ram that’s my fishing buddy.
What’s your favorite food?
I love beans and cornbread. I was raised on it. It saw me through the years, and I still love it. My favorite dessert is a double-layer coconut cake — and I can bake it myself.
What’s your favorite restaurant?
We go to Andiamo downtown. They do a great job.
What’s the future of the auto industry?
The future’s very bright, as long as we stay on the path that we’re headed. We’ve got Bob King now, and he’s got an excellent cast. It’s my vision to make Detroit the Motor City again. I want to put more factories in Detroit.
What does your future hold?
To continue to nurture this company and this union back to stability, making sure that people not only in Detroit and Michigan, but across the country, who work for Chrysler will have work and opportunity. Detroit is the bedrock of the auto industry. … If we take care of home, we can take care of the rest of the world. Then I can walk off with a big smile on my face and say, ‘Hey, we did that.’