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Heinz Prechter: Eulogy for a Pioneer
ER Staff

Heinz Prechter - Photo courtesy American SunroofHeinz Prechter, a German immigrant who used his initiative and determination to carve out a global auto supply empire in his adopted homeland and elevate himself to the heady ranks as a confidant of presidents, was found dead on July 6 at his Grossse Ile home.

Mr. Prechter's funeral on Wednesday drew thousands of mourners -- from employees to the chiefs of industry -- to pay their respects and mourn the sequence of events that led to his tragic and unexpected passing.

We at eMOTION! Reports were among those who feel a great personal loss.

The following tribute gathers memories of an industrialist, a friend and a dedicated American, and examines his rise to the top and the underlying conflicts that shaped the life of a complex and ultimately vulnerable man.

When Heinz Prechter was barely old enough to remember the events surrounding him, he crouched with his family behind the heavy wooden door of his family's German farmhouse. The sky overhead was filled with the roar of Allied planes on World War II bombing runs or preparing for air-to-air combat. It was a terrifying time that would indelibly stamp itself in the toddler's mind and forever shape who he would become a world away from those awful, early days.

That beginning, in the small farming town of Kleinhobing somewhere between Nuremberg and Munich in Nazi-controlled Germany, gave little hint of how far or powerfully Prechter's influence eventually would spread. But his tragic death by hanging just days ago, bore a sense of irony and was a cruel reminder that the demons of a long-ago past might never have been fully laid to rest.

Close friends and family knew of the turmoil that continued to dog the man who would become one of the world's top industrialists. There were repeated bouts of clinical depression. There were relentless attempts to bring it under control. It was to become the successful victor in a life-long battle against mental torment within a man whose public face was usually animated and vital, although even acquaintances recall moments when he displayed a visible aura of concern. And it was to be the ultimate legacy of a self-made, energetic and brilliant man, whose body -- from a probable suicide -- was discovered by his wife early in the morning in the poolhouse of his posh suburban Grosse Ile home.

Prechter -- the man who eventually would epitomize the American dream particularly for immigrants such as himself -- was born in 1942 when World War II was in full battle. After the war had ended, the Salvation Army played a major role in helping the family survive before he eventually came to the United States as an exchange student in 1963.

"He grew up in a small community and he later returned to Germany to marry his wife Wally (Waltraud)... but he really symbolizes the American dream," said his close, longtime friend, Wayne Doran, the former chairman of the Ford Motor Land Development Corp.

A Tale of Two Pasts

Many of the details of Prechter's early life are secrets held unspoken by a grieving family, too overwhelmed by his death to comment at this time. But his ascension to the top ranks in industry is well-documented.

Prechter began his automotive career at age 13 as an apprentice in automotive trim, tool and die making, and coach and auto body building, according to a Prechter biography. He completed his studies at Nuremberg's Berufs-Oberschule in Nuremberg, then contined at OHM Polytechnic Engineering School in that city. In the 1960s, Prechter got a taste of the United States as a cab driver in Germany when he drove around many American servicemen stationed there. He said he wasn't impressed with the way Americans acted.

He gained a wide range of experience working for a number of German companies, including the truck and military equipment supplier, Faunwerke; the electronics firm Siemens, which has grown into a major global auto supplier; and Deutz, a diesel engine manufacturer. During this time, he also learned about sunroofs, which were gaining popularity in Europe, but unknown in America.

But, the story goes, when he arrived in the U.S., he had only 11 American dollars worth of German marks in his pocket.

"Heinz looked at the United States as an adventure to expand his knowledge," said his longtime friend, Johnny Kolakowski, of Wyandotte, Michigan. He also viewed the U.S. government with respect, Kolakowski added.

Prechter landed in California and studied business administration and English at San Francisco State College. It was there he began installing sunroofs in cars. According to his friends, he originally planned to stay in America a year, but didn't go back to Germany for three years. He fell in love with the U.S. and became a citizen in 1972, then built himself into a driving force in the auto industry.

"His loss to the automotive community is devastating," said David L. Treadwell, president and CEO of Prechter Holdings, the corporation that oversees the Prechter empire.

Treadwell recalled the day prior to Prechter's death early July 6. He had spoken to Prechter for 45 minutes, but while his boss seemed "very depressed" he did not show any signs of being suicidal.

Silent Enemy

The Prechter family had carefully hidden his three bouts of depression during the past 30 years. Public opinion surveys show that many people think depression is a sign of personal weakness, said Treadwell. But it is an actual disease that Prechter was able to overcome time and time again.

Treadwell related the story he had heard of one of Prechter's earliest recollections: Hiding behind the door from bombers in that German farmhouse. It was one of the personal memories Prechter had shared with his employee and friend of 17 years.

To the casual observer and even longtime friends, such as Doran, who knew Prechter suffered from the affliction, the man credited with introducing sunroofs on automobiles to Americans seemed strong, self-assured, unstoppable and full of energy. He also had grown up under such difficult conditions that some have questioned whether he could have pushed himself to commit suicide.

Yet, in spite of his accomplishments, Prechter did suffer from bouts of clinical depression according to some of his closest friends. The body of the 59-year-old industrialist, philanthropist and political supporter was found by his wife, inside their estate's pool house on exlusive Grosse Ile island. According to Grosse Ile Police Chief William Barron, Prechter had used the power cord from a vacuum cleaner to hang himself in the building's stairwell. He was wearing a bathrobe and shoes when he was found.

Barron said the death has been officially ruled a suicide. The doors to the pool house were open and there were no signs of intruders. The housekeeping staff didn't notice any signs of trouble. He had spoken to several people the day before and even on the day of his death. But there was no indication he intended to take his own life.

Man at the Top

In fact, in America at the peak of his career just before his death, Prechter seemingly had everything to live for. His companies, including the ASC mainstay, were on firm financial footing and "his guy," George W. Bush, was in the White House.

Prechter had started the American Sunroof Co. (now ASC, Inc.) in 1965, as a one-man business in Los Angeles after spending $764 on tools and picking up an old door to serve as a workbench and a sewing machine from a junkyard. The firm became known for its custom sunroofs and for supporting the development of specialty vehicles for the film industry.

Prechter moved his fledgling company from California to Michigan in 1967 to be close to the "Big Three" - General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. The area, near Detroit, was a blue collar community that provided many workers for the Motor City's auto plants, far different than California. One of his early garages was in Ecorse. Its' an older, riverside community with a checkered history in a place referred to as "downriver," just before the Detroit River flows into Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes.

Long before the age of the automobile, the area had been covered with miles-long, narrow quot;ribbon" farms that French settlers started at the river's banks moving inland so each farmer had access to water. It would become a hotbed for gangs during America's Prohibition days in the 1920s, site of boatruns of illegal booze across the Detroit River from Canada. And, with industrialization, it became home to a massive steel mill that still dominates the skyline.

When Prechter set up shop, Ecorse and much of Detroit's downriver was declining as people and businesses pulled out. Downriver, however, was Prechter's choice. It was the region where he preferred to live and work, and he made it his home.

A Home Worth Fighting For

Prechter felt that Detroit's downriver region was at a crossroads, where it could continue to improve or decline, according to Doran. So, Prechter expanded his company in the downriver community of Southgate and lived in the region, determined to demonstrate his vision. He eventually earned the nickname, "Mr. Downriver," for his support of the area.

As business grew, Prechter eventually met Detroit financier Max Fisher and automotive leader Henry Ford II. Both men became his mentors. And during his more than 30 here, Prechter kept in contact with business friends such as Doran, who now serves as chairman of the Detroit Metropolitan Airport Development Commission.

"I first met him when Henry Ford II asked Heinz and I to go to a Detroit Lion's football game (in 1969 or 1970)," recalled Doran. "He and I used to play racquetball at 6 a.m. at the Fairlane Club (in nearby Dearborn)," Doran said. "He was so competitive that it used to bother him that I was a better player than him."

Although generally aware that Prechter suffered from clinical depression, Doran said that his friend never talked about it. "I had great admiration for Heinz."

The news of Prechter's apparent suicide shocked Doran. The retired Ford executive said that he had seen the industrialist just 10 days before at a black-tie dinner in Washington D.C. "When I saw him there, I thought he was really back on track. He never brought up the agonies of his health condition."

Future Perfect?

Prechter had lots of reasons to feel he was on track. His business acumen was superb and a constant stream of projects added to his success.

He had reshaped ASC headquarters into a campus of office and technical buildings. In the past four years, Prechter Holdings was created to oversee ASC Inc. and his real estate holdings. It would grow to employ 5,300 people in 60 facilities worldwide.

Prechter expanded his other business ventures into cattle, buying a ranch in Texas that brought him into contact with the Bush family and made him a success as a rancher.

He added a chain of weekly newspapers, purchased when the out-of-state corporate owner wanted to sell. The publications covered the downriver, Detroit-area communities and Prechter had said he wanted to preserve the papers' downriver character.

The chain has since expanded into several southeastern Michigan counties, yet Prechter never interfered with its editorial direction, according to the newsrooms' staffs. He was a rare sight in the newsroom, and ASC did not use it as a publicity tool.

A Little Taste of Texas

"Heinz was my strength," noted Kolakowski, a restaurant owner, chef, author and regular on the Outdoor Life Network cable television broadcast. He often was tapped by Prechter to go to his Texas ranch to cook for guests, including the Bush family, the automotive Ford family, Max Fisher, visiting Chinese, and numerous other business associates.

Kolakowski had met Prechter 30 years before while a constable during a legal case. He maintained that friendship as the man he called "Mr. Downriver" became involved in politics, particularly fund raising.

Although Prechter aligned himself with the Republican Party's ideal of limited government, making him an oddity in Democratic-dominated southern Wayne County, he became good friends with the county's chief executive, Ed McNamara, and U.S. Congressman John D. Dingell, both staunch Democratic powerbrokers.

"He was a hardworking Republican at heart, but he knew that he had to deal with the policymakers in his district," Kolakowski said.

For Prechter, the ranch was both a business and a place to entertain family and associates. Guests included George H. W. Bush and his son and current President, George W. Bush, mong dignitaries from around the world, according to Kolakowski.

Idea Power

But his heart remained focused on Detroit's downriver, where he kept pushing projects to aid in the region's revitalization.

One example of that pride came when he entertained the elder Bush, said Doran. Instead of taking the former president to the toney Ritz-Carlton Hotel in nearby Dearborn, or another elite restaurant in the metropolitan Detroit area, Prechter hosted the president at a hotel that he had bought and refurbished next to his corporate headquarters.

And, not long ago, Prechter asked Doran's advice on a massive landscaping project to improve a freeway intersection near ASC's headquarters. "He showed me the plans and talked about the raw materials to be used. it really turned out to be a class job," Doran said.

About five years ago Prechter proposed an additional international bridge from Detroit's downriver to Canada to avoid a miles-long detour through the heart of the Motor City. Although some scoffed at the idea, in January, at the 2001 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Prechter said that people were beginning to realize that another link to Canada was becoming necessary as traffic jammed Detroit's Ambassador Bridge and the two-lane Detroit-Windsor tunnel.

Prechter also saw Detroit Metropolitan Airport as an under utilized engine to improve the state's economy, according to Doran, who chairs a committee looking into developing land around the airport.

And recently, Prechter told Peter Glaab Jr., an investor living in in sparsely populated Huron Township near downriver and the international airport, that a blue ribbon committee should consider developing the region from the Detroit River as far as Ann Arbor's high tech alley.

Lessons from History's Winners

"Heinz believed that if development is going to happen, it should be made beautiful so people can take pride in their region," Glaab said.

And, unlike many modern industrialists, who often appear to track only the present, Prechter was planted firmly in history and understood that it was important for people to understand the pioneers of the auto industry. Among friends who knew of Prechter's historical interest was Gene McKinney, former president of the Automotive Hall of Fame (AHF) in "Ford country," near Ford Motor headquarters in Dearborn. Another was George Moroz, a director at the adjacent Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village.

Prechter was very supportive of AHF's educational programs, said McKinney, a member of the so-called "old guard" of American auto companies during his tenure at the now disbanded Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association. Prechter constantly pushed to include children in the AHF's happenings, said McKinney.

"As I grew to know him, I realized that he was truly a pioneer, just like those honored in the hall," McKinney said. "He knew what it meant to start with nothing and build a company."

Prechter was straightforward with people and was "top-to-bottom a genuine guy," McKinney added. "Any time I saw him, (he was) upbeat and looking for new challenges."

Prechter had become an active and influential civic leader and served on the Henry Ford museum's board, according to Moroz. "His investment in time, counsel, and direct financial support has been a major factor in the success of this institution and a number of other cultural and recreational facilities in the area."

Celebrating A New Homeland

One of Moroz's most poignant memories of Prechter was at a ceremony at Greenfield Village to swear in new U.S. citizens. "He delivered a brief speech a the start of those ceremonies where he explained to the new citizens about the possibilities and the potential they had for being Americans. A potential he greatly valued," Moroz said. "He told them that this country had given him the opportunity for success and they needed to take their advantages and, in turn, contribute back to their community. That was the kind of life he led."

When word spread of Prechter's shocking death, the outpouring of grief was almost immediate. The day before the funeral, a long line of friends, business associates, employees and admirers filed past Prechter's body in an open casket, where evidence of his untimely death remained unnvervingly visible.

His private funeral, the next day, at the Grosse Ile Presbyterian Church, was broadcast via
satellite to a flood of employees and other mourners in a nearby hall.

Condolences from around the world poured in to the Prechter family. Both former President George H. Bush and President George W. Bush called Prechter's family the day of his death, said Treadwell.

Sharing the Sorrow

President Bush's comments were posted on the White House website (www.whitehouse.gov): "Laura and I were saddened to hear of the death of Heinz Prechter," the message read. "He will be missed. He was a great friend of ours as well as the entire Bush family. He was an honorable and loyal man. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this very difficult time."

Despite his strong Republican loyalty and years of fundraising efforts, expessions of regret came from both sides of the political aisle. Michigan's Republican governor Engler joined Democrats Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and U.S. Rep. John D. Dingell in expressing their sadness. Prechter's loss was a blow to Michigan, they said.

Siegfried Buschmann, chairman and CEO of The Budd Co. of Troy, Mich., and vice chairman of ThyssenKrupp Automotive AG of Bochum German, was shocked and saddened at the loss of his friend and business colleague.

"Heinz had served on the Board of Directors of The Budd Company for 25 years and offered tremendous wisdom and counsel to all those he came in contact with," said Buschmann. "He also served on the Board of ThyssenKrupp Automotive AG in Germany. He was a giant in the global automotive industry and a person of great compassion and wit. We will miss him and extend our sincere condolences to his wife Wally and twin children, Stephanie and Paul."

Similar Roots

A fellow European native, Robert A. (Bob) Lutz, counted Prechter as a personal friend. The former Chrysler Corp. president and head of Exide Technologies, said Prechter also had been a valued member of Exide's board.

"His contributions to our company, to Detroit, to Michigan and to our national political process are legendary. He will be sorely missed by all who benefited from his drive, wisdom and compassion," Lutz said.

Over at Ford, where ASC did business for years, it was Jason Vines who relayed the regrets of the Ford family. Vines, vice president of communications, called Prechter's death a huge loss for his family, the Detroit area and the auto industry.

Tom Sidlik, at DaimlerChrysler, spoke of Prechter's personal warmth. "We are very sad to hear of the death of Heinz Prechter," said the Chrysler Group executive vice president. "He was a very warm person with a big heart, always trying to help bridge gaps that might separate people, whether within the United States or internationally.

"He was also extremely generous to others -- financially, (and) with his time and his advice. And, he epitomized the positive attributes of a self-made man in America, someone our company has always known as a valued business partner. He will be sorely missed."

News of Prechter's death went far beyond national borders, spreading as far as his childhood homeland of Germany where in recent years he had been working to buoy the economy and establish business relationships, particularly in the formerly Commnunistic East. In Germany, where it all began, the government was extremely saddened by his death, said Alexander Lambsdorff, the press attache for the German Embassy in Washington D.C.

"He was a native of Germany and, throughout his life, was a great friend of Germany's."

The life that had begun across an ocean in the throes of war, had ended in what appeared to be the throes of a personal, private battle, the cause still an unexplainable mystery.

- Joe Cabadas

Publisher's note:

I considered Heinz a friend.

As I prepared to depart for the viewing Tuesday, July 10th, I was struck by the reality of the termination of his existence and the loss to the world's largest industry.

Few people fall into the category of being truly dynamic and influential, yet Heinz met the criteria of these descriptors effortlessly. And despite having ready access to the rich and the powerful, I can't name one person who felt uncomfortable around this outgoing, gregarious and kind human
being.

I'm going to miss the hearty welcomes at auto shows and other industry events, I'll miss the frank discussions with him as I sought to launch a new magazine. You were never told what you wanted to hear, but what you needed to hear.

I'll miss the multiple "chance" encounters on Detroit's I-75 freeway, where we always seemed to be on the same stretch of highway at the same time; him, always a Porsche or Audi, me, in whatever I happened to be driving.

The routine was the same; a wave and a smile and then off to respective destinations.

At this point, I'm not sure that I accept that he brought about his own demise, although it is possible. I immediately questioned the "official" explanation because in all the years I was privileged to know him, there was never any real indication that he would one day make the most final of exits from world stage. His life was initially full of hardship, but tempered by the will to survive, and survive he did. In fact he thrived; chalking up one success in the automotive ndustry after another.

So, what happened? Was he driven by the demons of clinical depression to end the torment, finally? I don't know, perhaps we never will. At the moment, however, I am heartened by a ancient passage of hope: "And just a little while longer, death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be any more. The former things have passed away."

Rest well, Heinz.

Myron D. Stokes

 

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