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From mechanics to MBA: Alum relishes a challenge

Success is never so interesting as the struggle, not even to the successful." One of Terry Gerhardt's favorite quotes, the 1921 Willa Cather statement sums up his work philosophy as well.

"I enjoy the discovery process that occurs in engineering research," says engineering mechanics alum Gerhardt, who recently was promoted to vice president of corporate technology at Sonoco Products Company, a $2.5 billion global manufacturer of industrial and consumer packaging products and provider of packaging services.

"I greatly enjoyed mechanics research; about three years ago, I felt a personal need to try something new."

He earned a BS in metallurgical engineering in 1972, and 1974 MS and 1979 PhD degrees in engineering mechanics. (In 1979, his brother, Todd, received a master's degree in engineering mechanics here.)

Gerhardt worked first as a research engineer for Westvaco in Covington, Virginia, then returned to Wisconsin to Forest Products Laboratory and, for a year, UW-Madison as an adjunct assistant professor of engineering mechanics. In 1985 he became a senior research associate at Sonoco's Hartsville, South Carolina, research and development facility. Two years later he returned to Madison and established a satellite research operation for Sonoco, where later he received another promotion to senior research fellow.
Terry Gerhardt

Terry Gerhardt (10K JPG)

As a senior research fellow, the highest-level technical position at Sonoco, Gerhardt directed applied mechanics and paper science research and development teams in both Madison and Hartsville, South Carolina. His teams discovered relationships between paper properties and product structural requirements in field applications. Many of these discoveries have been commercialized into new products.

Recently, after years of encouragement from Sonoco's career-planning staff, Gerhardt decided to take the plunge from research into senior management. "For many years, I resisted considering this change, as I greatly enjoyed mechanics research and leading Sonoco's Madison research team," he says. "About three years ago, I felt a personal need to try something new."

To facilitate his transition, Gerhardt enrolled in the UW Business School's executive MBA program, earned his fourth UW-Madison degree in 1999 and, with his wife, Teri, moved to South Carolina. Now, as Sonoco's vice president of corporate technology, Gerhardt identifies and pursues worldwide emerging technologies that could present the company with competitive advantage and new business opportunities. "I am excited about taking on a new challenge," he says. "Although mechanics will play a prominent role in many potential technologies, other areas like polymer science and advanced manufacturing technology are also important to Sonoco. I am looking forward to learning more about these other areas."

Gerhardt also is looking forward to returning to Madison, which holds fond memories for him. "Even though we have moved to South Carolina, I plan to keep my season football tickets," he jokes. He was a student during the Vietnam War, when one night Walter Cronkite's lead story showed video of a car burning outside Gerhardt's dormitory, Ogg Hall. ("Yes, my parents were concerned," he says.) He made lifelong friends in that dorm, too. He learned the value of sound fundamental approaches in solving mechanics problems from his PhD advisor, Professor Shun Cheng. He watched his children, Spencer, 22, and Teena, 20, grow up here. And for seven years, with Teena and other high school students as assistant coaches, Gerhardt volunteered as coach of the MathCounts team at Jefferson Middle School. (Last year his team won the Wisconsin championship and he coached the Wisconsin team in Washington, D.C., in May.)

And true to the Cather quotation, Gerhardt enjoyed the experience as much as the outcome. "For me, interacting with great students, teachers, parents and WSPE volunteers was a tremendously rewarding experience," he says.


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Digital issue released:

Monday, 04-Dec-2000 12:28:00 CST