Kettering University experience has inspired graduate to find ways to give back

Baker’s time at Kettering launched him into more than three decades of exciting careers. And he wanted to share what he’s learned with Kettering University students.

Charlie Baker ‘82 knows the meaning of perseverance from his time at Kettering University and his multiple careers over the years. His journey into engineering itself took a lot of hard work and dedication.

“If I look back on my life, Kettering was sort of a pivotal experience for me. I was out of options in a lot of ways,” Baker said.

But that didn’t stop him for going after what he wanted.

Kettering (then General Motors Institute) was where Baker wanted to be, but it wasn’t that easy. After high school he worked as a mechanic for four years. Three years into his job as a mechanic, he knew he wanted more. That was easier said than done. He applied to Kettering and was denied. He wrote another letter and was again denied.

So, running out of options, he tried something radical. He left work on a Tuesday night and drove through the night from Minnesota to Flint to meet with former Associate Dean of Academic Affairs William Fugenschuh. He had no appointment, but Fugenschuh was gracious enough to meet with him and after some creative dialogue give him a chance.

He was admitted to Kettering to begin studying Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering.

“I was really into in street racing, everything Pontiac and especially exotic Pontiac engines. I put all my passion and time into that and it was a distraction for college right after high school. I was smart enough. I just didn’t apply myself before Kettering,” Baker said. “Kettering was really ideal for me in many ways. Being 100 percent focused on either work or school, hands on, very practical and tied to the auto industry was ideal.”

Baker’s time at Kettering launched him into more than three decades of exciting careers. And he wanted to share what he’s learned with Kettering University students. He will be on campus Feb. 17 to speak to the Kettering campus community at the invitation of the Student Alumni Council.

The event is free and open to alumni, students, faculty and staff. Lunch is included.

The title of his talk will be “Round Trip: What I’ve learned from working for seven great companies and coming back to GM.”

Baker started at Pontiac Motor Division during his co-op at Kettering. Baker hung around the engineering department every possible moment to get a chance to work in product development and eventually met Jim Lyons, a former GMI professor who was an extraordinary teacher, engineer, leader and mentor, Baker said.

At the time Lyons was responsible for emissions and calibration development of the 1980 301 Turbo Trans Am. He eventually gave Baker a chance to work on power development of this vehicle. Since at the time the engine dynamometers were completely tied up with emission development, Lyons took an unconventional approach and had Baker do full throttle power development with a handful of tuning parts and a stopwatch in the empty parking lots of Pontiac Motor Division.

“Don’t kill yourself or anyone else” Lyons told him at the time. Baker heeded the advice, and in an unforgettable work assignment successfully developed the production power calibration of the 301 Turbo.  

Baker subsequently worked both at Pontiac and Saturn Corporation as an engine test and design engineer. He left General Motors and worked at Honda R&D Americas for 15 years, eventually as Chief Engineer for five Honda vehicle programs in Japan and the U.S., as well as Vice President of Honda R&D Americas in Ohio.   

He left Honda and was Group Vice President for Engineering for Johnson Controls Automotive Experience, then Vice President for Engineering at Harley-Davidson. Baker rejoined GM in 2010 as the Executive Director and Global Functional Leader for Interior and Safety Engineering, and since 2014 has been Executive Director for Product Marketing for the Gem project.  

Baker is also a registered Professional Engineer in the State of Michigan.

He has had a lot of fun and adventure throughout his life and now Baker wants to share some of his knowledge with students.

“I want to share my tips on how to have a great career. Have a passion. Work with something you love. Easy to say. Tough to do,” Baker said. “Keep trying things until you find your passion. Life really is too short.”

“At the end of the day you have the satisfaction of conquering the toughest projects in your organization,” he said. “Great challenge and a great boss are two things that make a successful career. Your boss should be a mentor, someone who trusts you and challenges you.”Baker encourages students to get as much education in their chosen field as possible and to pick the toughest challenges.

Baker, and his wife Karen Baker ‘83, are always looking for ways to give back. Speaking to students is just one way. The Bakers have also endowed two scholarships so far.

The first was to honor Fugenschuh, who gave him a chance at Kettering. The second is for Lyons, who took a chance on him and moved forward his career in engineering. Lyons will attend Baker’s talk on Feb. 17.

“As you reach some point in your career, you start to think ‘I’ve been very lucky. How did that happen?’ You start to figure out that a lot of people helped you,” Charlie Baker said. “In my case a whole bunch of those people were associated with Kettering.”