Adept At Adapting: Dr. Susan Sweeney

Teaching, parenting, volunteering, heading a global enterprise — this alumna handles it all with aplomb.

Sweeney_1215_05To call Dr. Susan Sweeney merely “adaptable” — able to adjust to new conditions — would be a gross understatement. During her 52 years, the president of GGB Bearing Technology, who earned an Ed.D. from Wilmington University in 2014, has moved 17 times, by her count. That’s about once every three years.

What’s more, her job takes her to Europe nearly every month (GGB is headquartered in France). Just adapting (there’s that word again) to the time change and those crazy European electrical outlets would be a challenge for the average person.

But, as you may have gathered, Sweeney is far from average. She is, for instance, the first woman to head GGB, which is the global leader in high performance bearing solutions, serving tens of thousands of customers around the world. Likewise, she was the first female in several of the jobs she held during a 24-year career with General Motors. But in her typically modest fashion, she says, “It’s not something I think about.”

This lack of excessive self-regard no doubt stems from an upbringing by a couple of no-nonsense Michiganders, Joan and Wayne Case. Her mother was a nurse, and her father was a teacher and school administrator. Now retired, they celebrated 53 years of marriage in 2015.

Susan, the oldest of two girls and two boys, was born in Jackson, Mich., but the family moved often as her father worked his way up the educational ladder, finally becoming a superintendent. That was the beginning of what was to become Sweeney’s peripatetic lifestyle.

During the summers, wherever she was, young Susan worked: as a lifeguard, a waitress, cleaning houses, and babysitting. She also did some volunteer work with children — the beginning of a lifelong interest. “My parents’ philosophy was to keep us busy, and that way we wouldn’t get into trouble,” she says with a smile.

During the school year she was just as busy, playing basketball, softball, volleyball and, in the band, various woodwinds (flute, bassoon, piccolo).

After high school, it was on to Kalamazoo (Mich.) College, where she enrolled as a pre-med major. “I picked Kalamazoo because it was a liberal arts school that was serious about education, and they had a foreign studies program,” she says. “I wanted to study abroad, but my mother wouldn’t let me do that while I was in high school.”

Sweeney spent her junior year in Southern France, and admits, “My focus was not always on my studies.”

But, she adds, “I learned a lot.”

Indeed, the experience proved to be life-changing; it introduced her to new possibilities, and she decided to switch majors. “It may sound strange to say, but being a doctor seemed too limiting. I wanted something broader, but I couldn’t extend my schooling beyond four years because I didn’t have any money. So I looked at my options and decided that by doubling up on some of my econ classes I could get an economics degree and get a job. It was a very practical decision.”

Practical and productive: the decision got her an offer from General Motors in February of her senior year. But first, still fascinated with foreign travel, she negotiated with GM for a three-month delay in her reporting date so she could visit Spain and Egypt. Traveling alone, she managed to get by with a working knowledge of Spanish and absolutely no knowledge of Arabic. Yes, she — wait for it — adapted.

Her first GM post was in Detroit, as an industrial engineer, even though she didn’t have an engineering degree. “I learned the job,” she says, simply. While there she also went to night school at the University of Detroit, earning an MBA in 1989. “My focus area was labor relations and I had the perfect environment to practice, working as a production supervisor at (GM) Detroit Assembly.”

Sweeney’s GM career quickly blossomed, and she took on assignments with increasing responsibility — in Pontiac, Mich., Bowling Green, Ky., Baltimore and Montreal. In that Canadian city, she worked on the production line of two GM muscle cars, Firebird and Camaro. “I had to drive one off the line every night and take it home to check the quality,” Sweeney says. “Which was great, except in the winter; they’re rear-wheel drive — not good in snow.”

It was during her three years in Montreal that she married Patrick Sweeney. She had met him when both worked at GM in Baltimore. She moved to Canada during their engagement, while Patrick was transferred to St. Louis to launch a new truck product for GM.

“We had a commuter marriage for three years,” she says.

Perhaps none of Sweeney’s assignments was as demanding as her next stop, the Pontiac plant, which produced Silverado pickup trucks at the rate of 1,500 per day — one every 50 seconds. “I was in charge of the ‘pay point,’ literally a line on the floor that, once the moving assembly line passes that line, it’s considered a produced vehicle,” she says. “That was a lot of pressure, especially when the line stopped running at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

Her last GM assignment was the Boxwood Plant in Wilmington, where she was area manager, general assembly, which meant she managed the operation that put the car together — drive train, interior, etc. — and shipped the car to the dealer. “Seventy percent of the factory worked for me and I reported to the plant manager,” she says.

Sweeney spent 3-1/2 years at Boxwood before the plant closed in July of 2009. GM offered her another job, but she decided she “wanted to try something new.” She took a few months off, then tried two new things:  she started a consulting firm, and she entered the Ed.D. program at Wilmington University.

While some people pursue a doctorate to get a better job, she says her motivation was strictly personal. “My dad has an Ed.D., and that was an inspiration. But when I looked at my resume, which I did pretty critically, I saw I had done a lot of learning but  didn’t have anything to show for it. So I decided I would like to put it together in a more sophisticated way.”

She did her usual due diligence before choosing WilmU. “I looked at a bunch of programs and talked to a lot of people,” she says, “and I decided Wilmington offered the program I wanted — organizational leadership and innovation — and the flexibility I needed.”

Around the same time, she got an unsolicited offer from GGB. The job — director of operations, North America — would be located in Thorofare,

N. J., just a 35-mile commute from her home in Greenville, Del. She accepted, and that’s when she truly appreciated WilmU’s flexibility. “I began working a lot of  hours,” she says, “and Wilmington allowed me to pick one night a week for classes, which makes it easy to schedule around that day. You could plan for that day and know you would be doing that for two or three years. I could schedule around it, my family could schedule around it, and when you didn’t have classes that day, you could do the class work.”

She was even able to switch days, starting with Monday but changing to Friday evening classes. She enjoyed the diversity of the classes and the open dialogue that was encouraged. “We could respectfully express when we didn’t like things as well as when we did. We could discuss what was working and what wasn’t working.”

In late summer of  2013, she was about to start her dissertation, but at the same time was promoted to the presidency of GGB, which forced her to take a year off from her studies. “Luckily,” she says, “I had a wonderful advisor, Dr. Lynne Svenning. She’s fabulous. During that year, I would hear from her every couple of months. She would send me a note, saying ‘thinking about you,’ wondering what help I might need, something like that. I appreciated that. She’s quite good at what she does.”

Svenning, the program chair of organizational leadership and innovation, and associate professor in the College of Education-Doctoral, returns the compliment, calling Sweeney “the kind of student you like to have in a doctoral program.”

“She was very inquisitive, always questioning,” says Svenning. “She embodies what it means to be a lifelong learner.”

Sweeney’s dissertation focused on a group of 18 maintenance men at GGB and was aimed at developing a learning environment that would help them update their skills as well as their contribution to the plant’s bottom line. One of the goals was for the men to earn more money.

“I started the work some time before I entered the doctoral program, not realizing it would turn into my dissertation,” says Sweeney. “And then I realized it was what I was learning about in school.”

The dissertation evolved into a three-year case study that Svenning says “could serve as a model for any organization that wants to encourage employees to take the initiative in their professional development.”

From the time she enrolled at WilmU, Sweeney says, she had an interest in teaching, and she credits Svenning for encouraging her. “She put this idea in my head that I could
be one of the people on the other side of the podium, and I ended up teaching business classes, global business, economics and program management.” She started teaching undergraduate classes nearly five years ago and is now teaching graduate courses.

While the roles of adjunct professor and president of a global organization are what she does, being a wife and mother is who she is. The Sweeneys are the parents of two teenage boys: Taylor, a junior at Charter School of Wilmington, and Andrew, a freshman at The Tatnall School, also in Wilmington.

“When I’m in town, family is my priority,” Sweeney says. “I take my kids to school, and I try to pick them up.”

She attends as many of their games and concerts as possible. Both boys play baseball, and Taylor spends a lot of time at the Music School of Delaware, where he plays several instruments. The 6-foot-3-inch Andrew plays basketball for Tatnall. And both work as umpires in the Piedmont Little League.

When traveling, Sweeney depends on technology to communicate with her sons and Patrick, a manufacturing manager at Boeing in Ridley Park, Pa. “As long as I have my computer and my phone,” Sweeney says, “I can use Google, Hangout and Skype, and other things to stay in touch.”

She also continues to be active in volunteer work, continuing the passion that began in her teens. Much of it is through her church, Grace Lutheran in Hockessin, Del., and Family Promise of Northern New Castle County, which focuses on homelessness. She spends many hours working with the underprivileged, and, she says, “I usually drag my kids along.”

As for how she maintains such a schedule, Sweeney likes to joke that she has “a clone, maybe two.”

And no doubt both are extremely adaptable. WU