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By: Melissa Silmore (TPR'85)
She ends the phone call and leans back in her office chair, trying to absorb the unexpected news. Brazil? It’s quite the offer.
Ann Marie Petach had taken a long time to get into the chair she occupies at Ford Motor Company’s corporate headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. Her promotion the previous year from the company’s electronics division took longer than she had anticipated, but the frustrating wait is a distant memory because she relishes her new role as a member of the Ford treasurer’s team. She certainly isn’t looking for another position.
But the folks in the electronics division just made an enticing proposal. She could have the lead finance position at their plant in Brazil. She is a single career woman who had always sought adventure, so there is nothing in her personal life holding her back; but then she thinks about the plant’s location in the middle of nowhere, as well as the work itself, which doesn’t sound as challenging as what she does now. Still, it’s a chance to live abroad, which makes it reminiscent of a choice she made in college.
Petach’s father was a math teacher in the Rumson, N.J., public schools, where the family lived. Her mother taught home economics, but she also loved statistical research. So, it was no wonder their daughter excelled in math at Muhlenberg College. One of her professors recommended that she make it her major. But Petach also loved business and Spanish, and her analytical bent belied a strong sense of adventure. Choosing math meant she’d have to forfeit her semester abroad as a language/business major. “I decided I’d rather go to Spain,” Petach smiles. “It was a very sophisticated choice!”
As her 1982 graduation approached, the country was in recession. Unsure of her direction, she applied to graduate business schools and the Peace Corps. Her first-choice school was Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. Aside from the fact that it was a “great school,” her parents both grew up in the Pittsburgh area and many family members still lived there. Fate intervened to tip the scales. As her deadline to decide approached, an acceptance letter arrived from CMU. At that point, the Peace Corps offered only more interviews. She was off to Pittsburgh.
On the first day of graduate school, she made her way to the welcoming assembly, hoping she’d made the right choice. She sat next to another woman, Patricia Little. When they looked around, they realized they were in the minority, only 20 or so women were among the class of 120. As if that weren’t intimidating enough, the opening remarks to the class warned that “each of you will be tested here!”
Afterward, the two women walked together to their nearby apartments, discussing their next moves. “We decided to go out that night,” Little quips, “and call it a ‘learning to network’ exercise!” They quickly became friends and, ultimately, second-year roommates.
Along with the camaraderie, Petach says, she embraced the business school’s skills-based approach, rapid pace, and particularly its technological emphasis. In an era when most students relied on typewriters and notepaper, she and her classmates used computers. “It was really leading edge,” says Petach. “The technology [for 1982] was phenomenal.”
As graduation neared, Petach and her classmates were busy interviewing. Ford, a longtime CMU recruiter, was ending a two-year hiring freeze and evidently eager to pick up young Tepper graduates. Petach, Little, and four other classmates accepted job offers from the auto company. Soon after earning their diplomas in 1984, they began work in Michigan, rotating through various assignments.
Five years later, Petach felt like she was in a career rut, lagging behind her classmates. She wanted to move from the off-site electronics building, with its linoleum floors and ancient metal desks, to the “glass house” in Dearborn—company headquarters. Little, working at headquarters in treasury, knew of her friend’s frustration. While talking with her boss, Malcolm Macdonald, she pointedly mentioned Petach, highlighting her strong skills and fluent Spanish, prized in a global organization. Mac, as everyone called him, was then assistant treasurer. He was the kind of boss who advocated for talented employees—women and men—in a male-dominated industry and the type to cap a stressful presentation with a trek to a burger joint. Spurred by Little’s endorsement, he contacted Petach and was impressed with both the language skills and analytical abilities she’d honed at Tepper. He offered her an open analyst position in treasury, where she sits on the day she receives the phone call that has a Brazilian destination. What to do?
She makes her way down the hall to Macdonald’s spacious corner office and sits down.
“Mac, I’ve been given this offer from electronics that would transfer me to Brazil. I don’t know what to do.”
“You’d go to Brazil, Ann Marie?”
“Yes, I’d really love to go!”
“Well, don’t take it! I’ll get you the job you want.”
Stunned, she returns to her office, mulling over the turn of events. And it hits her: “If you don’t tell people what you want, they’re never going to guess. They’ll make a lot of assumptions about you that may or may not be true.”
Sure enough, in less than six weeks, Macdonald finds the “perfect” position. She’s on her way to Brazil—as senior treasury executive of Autolatina, a “huge” joint venture between Ford and Volkswagen—and still reporting to Macdonald. Rather than staying squirreled away in a remote plant, she’ll lead treasury strategy in Sao Paulo, at the division headquarters for Ford’s entire Latin American business.(Continued …)