For Gm's Chief, the Day Begins with Kids' Cereal at 5:30 A.m.

updated 11/24/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/24/1980 01:00AM

Living on $941,667 a year may not be everyone's idea of a struggle. Yet for Thomas Aquinas Murphy, chairman and chief executive officer of General Motors, who earned that much in 1979 (and for his high-level colleagues in business), life in the executive suite has its price as well—one measured in killer schedules, isolation from family and the loss of personal freedom. "In my life, events control me," laments Murphy, who joined GM in 1938 as a financial clerk in Detroit. The young University of Illinois graduate (a onetime ice factory employee) immediately moved to the New York office on "temporary" assignment. Before returning to Detroit 29 years later, he had married Catherine Rita Maguire and fathered three children. In 1968 he became treasurer and for the past six years has directed the nation 's second largest corporation (after Exxon) and its 740,000 employees. Murphy will turn 65 next month and under GM's retirement policy will step down from his post on Jan. 1. Earlier this month be welcomed PEOPLE Correspondent Julie Greenwalt beyond the electronic doors that protect his 14th-floor office at GM headquarters.

My parents were hardworking and successful people who believed in education even though my mother only finished grammar school and my father had to go to work before he got that far. They saw to it that my brothers and I were well educated. I graduated from high school in 1932, in the depth of the Depression, and from college in 1938, when the economy was in recession. I have a great understanding of the importance of getting a job and keeping it. Back then it was worth performing well because there were a lot of other people who wanted your position. I don't think any job is perfect, but I happen to like what I do. I like the organization and relate well to it, and the people in it.

As in many professions, the needs of the business day determine my schedule, and I really have little or no opportunity to change it. I usually get up about 5:30 a.m. and have a little juice, one cup of coffee and some of that presweetened kids' cereal. I have the open boxes all lined up on the shelf, and I eat a different kind each morning.

Then I ride my stationary exercise bike, usually six to nine miles. While riding, I read, mostly business publications. Later, on the way to the office I try to stop by my church, but there is not always time to stay for Mass. Religion is an important but very personal part of my life; occasionally I will walk down the hall at work and say a few Hail Marys, but usually I'm too immersed in my job.

I get to the office about 7:45, and from there the pattern varies. For example, one day recently I went to the office in the morning, then flew to a meeting in New York. Next, on to Philadelphia where I was a speaker at a dinner banquet. The next morning I left for Bermuda to address the New York Auto Dealers' Association, returning to my office in Detroit by mid-afternoon.

I don't care for travel, but it's part of the job, so I accept it. But I guess if anybody had told me that I'd have to make one speech a week or more in this job, I'd probably have said, "You'd better get someone else." I never did like to make speeches, and I don't think I ever will. I dread it. I border on being physically ill, particularly if I have enough time to think about it.

One of the frustrations of traveling and getting away from the office is knowing that things are going to pile up while I'm gone. That catch-up period afterward is probably even more difficult for me than the travel.

Mostly, I spend long days at my desk and in meetings. Some efficiency experts say you should handle a piece of paper only once. If you use that criterion, I'm not very efficient. See all these stacks of papers on my desk? Each one is there for a purpose. Everyone has his or her own method of organizing. This works for me.

I take work home each night, a full briefcase and sometimes more. I read very late, but I never read in bed. When I go to bed, I go there to sleep—and I do as soon as my head hits the pillow.

I don't drink, so when I'm offered wine at dinner I swirl it about and smell it and hope that nobody notices that I'm not drinking. Sis, my wife, teases me about it and warns that someday I'm going to approve a bottle of vinegar at the dinner table because I always say "Wonderful, wonderful" to every bottle of wine offered.

The sacrifice and discipline of this job affect the entire family. When the kids were younger and had an accident or whatnot, Sis would never, never call me at the office. The home was her job and she handled it.

I wish I had had more time to spend with the children when they were growing up, but my hours were long and there was a fair amount of traveling.

In the circumstances that I find myself in, a sense of humor really helps. I get a lift from the comic sections of the papers and read them every day. Golf takes too much time, but I do play occasionally, and badly. I guess my biggest hobby is reading. Although I concentrate more on things that are related to business and General Motors, in times past I did some casual reading—mystery stories and light novels—and I hope to be able to find time to do that after this year.

What I want is a schedule of my own making, where I don't have to be running to catch a plane or going to this luncheon or that dinner, where my wife and I can say, "This is something we would like to do, and these are the people we'd like to be with," and be able to change our schedule when we feel like it.

In January there are some things that I think I'll do, charitable things and civic projects. I think we should all give a little of ourselves for the common good. My wife and I have a little place in Florida, and we also hope to spend a lot of the winter there. I may wake up at 5:30 in the morning. I may even set the alarm the first morning or two—just so I can say, "Ha ha! Go bag it!"

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