Overcoming life’s many obstacles has a way of motivating people to do great things. Take Steve Finch, for instance.
The 1976 Hutch-Tech graduate grew up near Sisters Hospital at a time when gangs were becoming prevalent in the city. His father worked two jobs, and money was still tight. And his mother died of cancer when he was 14.
But today, he is the plant manager at the General Motors Tonawanda Engine Plant on River Road and gets to drive around in great big Escalades and little red Corvettes – free.
“I’ll tell you about a journey to get one of those,” Finch told a group of Buffalo students from Hutch-Tech and Burgard high schools and Houghton Academy.
The program was held Thursday as part of the “Success Looks Like Me” initiative aimed at minority students.
Finch, who is African-American, has been at the helm of the GM plant since 2007. Under his leadership, GM made a $25 million investment in the plant, and he secured an additional 1,000 jobs there.
He shared his personal success story with the kids, but it was the little red Corvette that really captured their attention.
“How do I get one of those?” said Theo Torres, a senior at Burgard.
Kiara Ray, a senior at Hutch-Tech, said Finch’s presentation “was very interesting” and gave her another career option to think about.
“And I like the idea of getting a car for free,” she said.
Finch traced his journey to success back to his childhood, when he always liked “fiddling around” with things.
“I used to love tinkering with stuff,” he said. He once took apart a retractable tape measure to find out what made it slide back into its encasement automatically. So he sat on the steps, unscrewed the tape measure, and the whole thing unraveled, and the spring came out.
“I think that was the beginning of my love for engineering,” said Finch, adding that he was a good student, but he didn’t realize how it would pay off for him in the future.
He was into computers, and Hutch-Tech had just started computer science classes. He figured that after graduation he would go to Bryant & Stratton and get married to his high school sweetheart.
But one day a guy from General Motors Institute came to his high school to talk about a co-op program for students. The way it worked, a student would go to school for a while and then work for GM for a while.
The Tonawanda plant sponsored him for the five-year bachelor’s program, but Finch decided that wasn’t what he wanted and gave up his space in the program.
That was until a doctor friend persuaded him to change his mind about going to GMI.
“He said, ‘With all due respect, you’re throwing your life away. You have to look beyond the five years. You have to think about the long-term possibilities for you and your family,’ ” Finch said.
That was enough to change his mind. He reapplied for the program, but the Tonawanda plant had given his space to another student. So he had to go to another plant in Michigan.
He got his degree in electrical engineering and lived in Michigan for 28 years before returning to Buffalo in 2007 to take over as chief of the GM Tonawanda plant, where engines for the 2014 Corvette Stingray are manufactured.
That’s how Finch was handed the keys to one.
“We’re the only place in the world that makes those engines,” he said, alluding to one of the greatest benefits of his job. “You get to drive the vehicles they make.”
Recently, he was driving a custom-ordered platinum Escalade with brown leather seats, but he traded that in for the Corvette.
To this day, he gives that friend of his much credit for his success.
“Had I not listened to that doctor who told me to think farther than five years out, I wouldn’t be here,” said Finch, who also outlined for the students a path to success.
“Step one, you gotta finish high school,” he said. “You gotta go to college. It gives you an opportunity to kick the door in.”
Also, having a positive attitude is “absolutely essential,” and perseverance is important to deal with the difficulties that are inevitable, he added.
The students also toured the plant and participated in a discussion with GM staff, who represented various career choices at the plant.
Finch’s presentation was videotaped and streamed live to other Buffalo public schools.
Superintendent Pamela Brown also spoke during the program.
The youngest of eight children, Brown said she was the first in her family to enroll in a four-year college, which inspired some of her older siblings to follow suit.
“To reach a level of success, you have to set goals and demonstrate a strong work ethic,” she told the students.
“Success Looks Like Me” is a program of the Cultures of Giving Legacy Initiative. Funded by a “Mentoring Matters” grant from the First Niagara Bank Foundation, the program provides low-income youth of color opportunities to interact with successful adults who reflect their ethnicity. It also allows young people to interact with the leaders through in-person and online mentoring opportunities, panel and group discussions and tours of workplaces and college campuses.