CalBusiness

 

Spring/Summer 2008

Feature Stories

Your Haas Network

W. Michael Blumenthal, BS 51

Former US Treasury Secretary

Director, Jewish Museum Berlin

Berlin, Germany


Lofty titles mean little to W. Michael Blumenthal. The former US secretary of the treasury says, "Whenever I meet a hot-shot CEO, even a president, I think, 'I'd like to see him in Shanghai.'"


His family arrived in Shanghai in 1939, barely escaping the Nazis. His father had spent six weeks in the Buchenwald concentration camp, securing his release only after Blumenthal's mother demonstrated the family's ability to leave Germany for China.


As newcomers to Shanghai, the family, which owned a store in Germany, had nothing. They faced brutal conditions. Epidemics swept the city, leaving corpses in the streets.


To help his family survive, 13-year-old Blumenthal rinsed bottles and turned them in for money. "I saw that it was inner resources that mattered," Blumenthal says.


He cultivated those resources, studying when he could. Without graduating from high school, the 21-year-old immigrated to the United States after the war and took free courses at San Francisco City College. With strong grades and improving English, he soon transferred to Cal.


Blumenthal has earned many prizes since then, but the two that mean the most to him are an honorary degree from San Francisco City College and the "Alumnus of the Year" award from UC Berkeley in 1978. "Those were the places that Americanized me," he says.


After earning a doctorate in economics at Princeton, Blumenthal worked in the US State Department for six years. He went on to become CEO of Bendix, a manufacturing conglomerate, and then US treasury secretary under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1979, a period of rampant inflation. "I developed a reputation for telling the President things he didn't want to hear," Blumenthal says. When Carter's aides advised cleaning house, Blumenthal was among those let go.


He then joined the board of Burroughs Corp., became chairman, and in 1986 merged that company with Sperry to form Unisys, an IT services firm, which he served as CEO.


Along the way, Blumenthal promoted ethics in business and wrote a book, The Invisible Wall, about three centuries of Jewish-Gentile relations in Germany. He did much of his research in Berlin, and was later asked to become the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin. He has held that position for 10 years.


"I had learned how to get large numbers of people to work together - at corporations, the federal government," he says. "But I always wondered if I could be an entrepreneur. The museum is a small business. In my old age, I have become an entrepreneur."


 

"Feature Stories" Table of Contents

 

W. Michael Blumenthal, BS 51

W. Michael Blumenthal,
BS 51

Former US Treasury Secretary
Director, Jewish Museum Berlin
Berlin, Germany