Counselor's nudges sent a lad to the top

Award: Rodney O'Neal is to receive The Black Engineer of the Year award here today.

February 16, 2002|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Rodney O'Neal owes his career to a pesky high school guidance counselor.

With no money to go to college and study computer technology as he wanted, O'Neal was struggling in his senior year.

The counselor, despite O'Neal's repeated resistance, pestered him to apply to General Motors Corp.'s management training school. She eventually stuck an application into his locker.

"I filled it out so she would leave me alone," he said.

O'Neal not only got into the program, but also went on to build a career with the automotive company. He left only when the subsidiary for which he was working split from the company in 1999 to become an independent business, Delphi Automotive Systems. He is now an executive vice president of Delphi.

Today, O'Neal, 48, will be honored for his achievement in the automotive industry when he is given The Black Engineer of the Year award during a ceremony at the Baltimore Convention Center.

This is the 16th year Baltimore-based Career Communications Group, publisher of Black Engineering Information & Technology magazine, has given out the award as a way to recognize blacks in the science, technology and engineering fields.

"I was pretty amazed that he had achieved what he had," said David Bogle, an executive of Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp. and a member of the committee that selected O'Neal. "He is a relatively young man who has risen through the ranks fairly quickly. Working for a large corporation myself, I know that is not an easy feat."

As an executive vice president at Delphi, O'Neal is one of the automotive supplier's top six officials. He heads the company's Safety, Thermal and Electrical Architecture Sector, overseeing 110,000 employees and $10 billion in sales, according to 2000 figures.

O'Neal said he would never have dreamed he'd one day be an executive at a $29 billion company when he was a kid growing up in Dayton, Ohio.

"Where I am today is sort of a fluke, I guess," O'Neal said. "I'd never heard of the General Motors Institute. I never even saw the school until I set foot on the campus for my first class."

But there were signs early on that O'Neal had an engineering mind.

He and his three brothers would build model cars, airplanes and rockets, and then would launch them from a field behind their house. His peers made fun of him because he actually enjoyed working on algebra and chemistry problems.

O'Neal said his mother, a homemaker, and his father, a technician at the local Air Force base, helped create a strong work ethic in their three sons. Although neither parent had a college degree, it was expected that their children would.

"They felt stubbornly that education wasn't necessarily a guarantee to success but it was absolutely one of the key ingredients," O'Neal said.

Although a strong athlete, O'Neal gave up sports when he was 16 to get a job and save money for college. He worked weekends and after school in the circulation department of the Dayton Daily News, but by his senior year didn't have enough money for even a full year of college.

That's when his guidance counselor stepped in and O'Neal, at age 17, enrolled in the General Motors school.

O'Neal quickly warmed to his studies. Much of the program was paid, hands-on training, and he soon realized that engineers weren't paid too badly, either.

But O'Neal's climb to the auto elite wasn't easy. He went from attending an all-black high school to a college where he was one of just 21 black students of about 2,100. There were times when he wanted to quit, but counselors urged him to continue.

"They would say, `You can quit, or you can stay and make a change,'" O'Neal said.

O'Neal was often the only African-American at meetings as he rose through the ranks, but he says race was never a barrier.

"I'm not going to say that during that time that kind of thing didn't happen, but as I moved through my career, I was never blatantly exposed to that kind of racism," he said.

In fact, O'Neal said, people took him under their wings and made it possible for him to succeed.

"It takes the proper experience and background to get to the head of a global empire," O'Neal said. "You also need others to take an interest and put your talents to use. If no one had ever put Hank Aaron to bat he would have never become a legend."

While at General Motors, O'Neal held a number of manufacturing positions in Dayton, Portugal and Canada. He was made a vice president in 1997.

Delphi officials said O'Neal was a key player in the company's split from General Motors. They also applaud him for an earlier project where he led the divestiture of the company's $1.2 billion seating business.

"Very few African-Americans make it to the top, and in that he's very exceptional," said David Garrett, Jr., manager of materials strategic planing for Delphi's safety and interior division. "He's also easy to talk to and smart. He at the same time can motivate you and challenge you and make you feel good about yourself."

O'Neal said the Black Engineer of the Year award humbles him, because he says "it lets me know what other people think of Rodney O'Neal."

O'Neal says there's not too much left he could ask for in life. He's learned over the years to make more time for his family: daughter Heather Marie, 18; son Damien, 13; and his wife, Pamela. He also would like to spend more time golfing and doing other outdoor activities.

"I'm at the apex of success," O'Neal said. "Anything else that happens to me would be icing on what already is an outstanding cake."

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