Don Walker Q&A:
Chess, Strategic Thinking
and the Future of Magna
You’ve said that running a company is like playing a chess game and moving the pieces around the board. Chess is strategic thinking. Were you thinking many moves ahead as you prepared to leave Magna?
I enjoy playing speed chess because I’m not very patient. You set a timer for four minutes and you make a move, and then it’s the other person’s turn. I don’t like taking a lot of time to play.
A CEO’s most important task, once you figure out a good structure and a culture, is all about picking the right people. If you pick the right people, all the problems magically go away. For the most part, you want people who are anticipating what might happen and what needs to be done. You are not just preparing to run the company as it is; you need to be thinking what skills and talent you need five years down the road, when we might have another 20,000 people, an extra $10 billion in sales, new product lines, acquisitions and joint ventures. I look at that as playing chess. You’re thinking through what you need to be doing and asking yourself ‘What will Magna look like in five years?’
What will Magna look like in five years?
We have a good, cohesive management team. Swamy is ready for this position. He has shown me he’s intelligent enough, very pragmatic and very fair. He’s a visionary and customers have respect for him. It’s going back to the chess game analogy. He’s made all the moves that show us he is ready for this. The team will work extremely well together. This is the best thing for the company.
Magna will continue to grow in size. We will continue to see sales grow fairly rapidly. Look at the business plans of the seven groups – all are seeing growth. They will only get stronger as we expand technical offerings within the products we have.
I am very optimistic. For the last 10 years we’ve focused on world- class manufacturing, innovation and developing our people. We’ve done a good job maintaining and reinforcing our culture.
You’ve had two big initiatives this year: sustainability and diversity & inclusion. What is your ultimate goal for each?
With sustainability, we should do the best we possibly can for the planet and the environment. I personally am concerned about global warming. We need to take this seriously. Our investors and customers are interested in this. You want to know the company is doing what it should be doing for all of our children.
With D&I, the ultimate goal is to attract the best and brightest people, develop them and allow them to have the best career, and to treat everyone equally.
WHAT ARE YOUR PASSION PROJECTS AND PLANS AFTER YOU LEAVE MAGNA?
I’ve had a life plan for over 40 years. I’ll continue to work with the XPRIZE Foundation to solve big problems in the world, such as how do we take CO2 out of the atmosphere. The auto industry may be able to pool financial resources to get involved and work together.
I’m also interested in mental, spiritual and physical health. We all have a choice of what we eat, our attitude, and whether we’re a positive or negative person. At Magna, we have programs to encourage people to have a healthy lifestyle. I will continue to work on that personally and disseminate that information. I started a group called the Longevity League that focuses on prevention and a healthy lifestyle. It’s a big aspiration for me to encourage people to eat healthy, exercise and be positive.
I also enjoy riding motorcycles and traveling. I ride a Harley- Davidson Street Glide and a Harley-Davidson V-Rod, and I started a motorcycle club with three friends. I’m not sure about my first road trip after retirement because of COVID- 19, but I’ve ridden in California, Nashville and other places.
HOW DO YOU ENVISION YOUR LEGACY?
I’ve never worried about my legacy. I never look for positive feedback from anybody but myself. I’ve had a lot of people reach out and say their dealings with me have been open and honest. We’ve worked together to do the best and have great careers. What am I happy about? The feedback I’ve been getting. And I’m most proud that we have profit sharing, with billions of dollars that have gone back to people. That has been the most gratifying – to be able to create that much wealth and then distribute it.
What is the best part of the job for you?
I’m constantly amazed when I get into the divisions and see how engaged and innovative people are. The ideas we get from so many different areas are really amazing. The best part of the job for me is dealing with so many passionate, dedicated and intelligent people. When I talk to our competitors and customers, the consistent feedback is the respect they have for Magna. We are constantly winning awards. None of those come easily. We have the culture, the structure, the workforce, energy and mindset to be the best in the industry. Magna can solve a lot of problems.
WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS YOU WOULD LIKE TO SEE CONTINUE IN THE FUTURE AT MAGNA?
1.Maintaining our entrepreneurial culture.
4.Continuing the journey on world-class manufacturing.
5.Maintaining fiscal responsibility and a conservative balance sheet, so we don’t get into so much debt if there is a downturn. It’s up to everybody to make sure we don’t take too many risks.