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No retirement for this mogul

By Jennie L. Phipps ·
Monday, October 18, 2010
Posted: 4 pm ET

Last week, I covered a conference in Detroit on plug-in electric cars and was gratified that there were more gray hairs than trendy young things.

I interviewed the CEO of Protean Electric, Bob Purcell, who used to head up General Motors Co.'s advanced technology group and launched the EV1, which led the way to today's growing electric car market. Protean is a well-funded startup company that is producing in-wheel electric drive systems that make converting conventional vehicles to electric-powered ones practical.

I mentioned to Purcell, who is 58, that there was no shortage of old automotive dogs in this new automotive business. He laughed and said that was because none of them could afford to retire, and whipped out pictures of his five children, ages 5 to 15.

Purcell said he didn't mind being a poster child for smart retirement planning. He started thinking about his retirement options when life at GM got dicey in the mid-2000s. Shortly before the financial meltdown came in October 2008, he took early retirement and launched a new life as a consultant in the burgeoning world of electric-powered cars.

His first client was Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which owns MidAmerican Energy Holdings, a company specializing in alternative fuels. Working with Berkshire Hathaway, where 80-year-old Warren Buffett calls the shots, was eye-opening, Purcell says. "Being young at Berkshire Hathaway is no advantage," he says. "Everybody's old at Berkshire Hathaway."

That emboldened Purcell to reach out to other opportunities where his years of experience in the electric-powered automotive space would be valued. This led him first to a board of directors position and then the CEO job at Protean. "This is a business where you need real world, not PowerPoint, experience," he says. "You can't simulate it; you have to have done it."

Does he ever think about retiring? "No," he says. "I don't plan to think about it until I'm at least 70."

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