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Marty Holleran ’64: The Determined Mentor

Marty Holleran ’64: The Determined Mentor

A CEO transforms tragedy into resolve, documenting the highlights in his recent memoir.

In his senior year at Scranton, Marty Holleran walked into a small conference room in the Estate to face five Jesuits for an oral philosophy exam. An engineering major, he learned the technical skills that would take him to General Electric (GE), where he eventually led numerous operating divisions. But back then, in 1964, long before his successes in business, his task was to discuss the ambiguities of philosophical thought. He was confident with numbers and data, but not this. This was daunting.

“That particular exam scared the bejesus out of me,” said Holleran ’64, one for Irish exclamations. “But it helped me. You come out of Scranton as a well-rounded person, not just a technician.”

Holleran learned that with hard work and a bit of humor, he could succeed. His tenacity helped him to survive hardships down the line and come out the other side to call his life “well lived.” In fact, Well Lived is the title of his recent memoir, in which he details everything from his aspirations to become a singer to the founding of the Children’s Pompe Foundation. He set out to write the memoir for his family, “a bit of heritage,” he said, but the book, which also covers his broad career in business, is now inspiring others thanks to its message of resilience.

Transforming Tragedy

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Holleran grew up in Scranton. His house, he said, was often full of his Irish relatives, some of whom stayed for long periods of time. He remembers his mother teaching a couple of critical lessons during those hectic years.

“She said, ‘Marty, I’m going to give you two gifts in your life. The rest is my love because that’s free. The second is the gift of self-confidence. You’ll sing and dance. We’ll do anything to get you up on the stage in front of people. That’s going to be a gift that will help you the rest of your life.’ And it did,” he said.

Holleran dreamed of becoming a professional singer, but his father convinced him to apply to college so he would have a “backup plan.” After he was initially rejected from Scranton, Holleran lobbied the dean of admissions for a spot in the class. He was accepted on probation; the tenuous nature of his acceptance inspired him further. Nevertheless, he was stressed about his grades during his freshman year. Still in his family home at the end of his rest semester, his mother stopped into his room to tell him how he’d done — he’d made the dean’s list, she said. It was one of the last things she said to him. She died later that day.

His mother’s death weighed heavily on the family. Soon after, they were forced out of their home and into public housing. Holleran helped take care of his younger brothers during his remaining years in college.

“I was more determined because of that tragedy,” he said. “We all were.”

After obtaining his master’s degree in electrical engineering, he went on active duty as an officer in the U.S. Army during Vietnam. He was stationed stateside and, among other duties, was assigned the task of informing parents that their sons were killed in action.

“I grew up big time in my 20s, telling parents that their sons died,” he recalled. “It put real life in perspective and propelled me forward in my professional career.”

Having “grown up,” he began working at GE and, including an assignment on the Presidential Executive Interchange Program, sponsored by the White House, spent 10 years in engineering and manufacturing roles before he moved into marketing and sales positions, which led to senior management positions.

Later in life, when his infant grandchildren, Megan and Patrick Crowley, were given three months to live after receiving a diagnosis of a rare disease called Pompe, he knew he’d again have to ward off tragedy with determination. As detailed in a 2010 movie called Extraordinary Measures starring Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser, the Crowley and Holleran family fought back. Holleran and his son-in-law, John Crowley, founded the Children’s Pompe Foundation, which funded a company eventually bought by Genzyme, which developed the life-saving, federally approved drug for the disease. Megan and Patrick are now in their early 20s, and Megan attends The University of Notre Dame.

“In addition to your chosen field of study, a Jesuit education exposes you to religion, history, philosophy, foreign languages, etc. These are things you will never forget as you go through your life.” 

“When you are faced with a tragedy such as Pompe, you either go in a corner and cry, or you get so angry you do something about it. And then you end up moving mountains,” said Holleran. “You are open reminded that life is delicate, but you gotta get through it. You can’t let it tear you apart.”

Telling the Story

Holleran hands out personal and professional advice at every turn, including, “There’s no substitute for hard work — you work your tail off. If you do, you’re going to succeed; if you don’t, you’re going to wander.”

It is just this sort of advice that makes Holleran the ideal mentor to CEOs and other top executives. After more than three decades in CEO and other top executive positions at GE and other companies, he joined Merryck & Co., which matches experienced CEOs as mentors with new CEOs or C-suite executives, helping them and their teams “lead more effective lives and build more successful businesses.” So far, he has mentored 15 CEOs.

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Holleran and his family

When he mentors a client, he gets to know them during a two-and-a-half-day retreat to discuss everything from strategy to business. He gets started by asking the client to create a “lifeline” by plotting the degrees of their happiness and sadness over their lives on a chart.

“The chart usually ends up with a sine curve,” he said. “And when they begin to talk about those highs and lows, they often won’t stop. It’s very powerful.”

Effective storytelling is also important in creating deep connections, said Holleran, which is why his personal story is not off limits.

“There’s no mystery to mentoring,” he said. “When you tell your story honestly, that leads to an in-depth discussion. You don’t preach. It’s not a religious thing. This is a real discussion about your life and your business, and it leads to significant improvements going forward.”

Writing his own story helped him reflect on how his Jesuit education helped him along the way.

“In addition to your chosen field of study, a Jesuit education exposes you to religion, history, philosophy, foreign languages, etc. These are things you will never forget as you go through your life. It’s the secret sauce of a Jesuit education.”

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Holleran (right) with his brother Charles ’67 (left) and Bernard McIlhenny, S.J. (center), at the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick’s Dinner.

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