Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

St. Louis Woman Found the Keys to Unlock Doors to the Top

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

St. Louis Woman Found the Keys to Unlock Doors to the Top

Article excerpt

After nearly finishing her education, Deborah Stewart of north St. Louis went looking for a job back in 1977. She was one of nine children of a working-class family. It was March and she wouldn't graduate until May, but she hoped to get a jump on other graduating job-seekers.

Armed with a master's degree in industrial psychology from Washington University, she tried her luck at a handful of St. Louis' major manufacturing operations, ones that made cars or weapons or pet food.

Her thought: A resident psychologist could help workers cope with a variety of job-related stresses.

The reality: No such position existed at the time.

She knew little about manufacturing plants and so at General Motors she ended up at the hourly personnel office. Upon seeing Stewart's resume, the clerk gently suggested she walk over to the salaried personnel office.

That door was locked, however. Stewart got the clerk to open it. She was told no jobs were open but she could take an application and mail it back. To avoid the expense of a stamp, she stayed and filled out the form. By the time she got home, her mother had a call from GM, asking to talk to Stewart the next day about a job.

Soon she was employed at the old GM plant on Union and Natural Bridge as part of a program to use the perspective of liberal arts majors in the engineering side of manufacturing.

"My career has been a series of doors unlocked, one after another, ever since," she said.

This week Deborah Stewart Kent, 41, single mother of two daughters, walked through a historic doorway when she went to work as plant manager of Ford's Ohio Assembly Plant in Avon Lake.

She's the first black woman worldwide to run a Ford plant, and may be the only one to run an auto plant, period.

The last 17 years saw her working for GM in Kentucky and Detroit, before Ford hired her in 1987. Since then, she's been an area manager in Detroit and Dearborn, and an assistant plant manager in Chicago and Detroit.

Now she's in charge of a 3.3-million-square-foot plant that employs 3,746 people, has a yearly payroll of $176 million, boasts a 19.5-mile assembly line and produces annually 61,752 Mercury Villager and 53,432 Nissan Quest minivans, plus 216,035 Econoline and Club Wagon bodies. …

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