“Develop tact and you will go far.” These were the words Shipley’s head of school, Mrs. Epes, had inscribed on the index card she handed to Fredricka Brecht at her graduation in 1968. “I think it was her way of telling me to work on the grace part (of the school motto),” says Brecht, who now herself coaches CEOs to become better leaders. As an independent contractor for Vistage International, a support network for about 14,000 business leaders world-wide, she belongs to an elite group of former executives who have been “converted” into team leaders.
Brecht describes her work in its most basic form as getting together groups of CEOs to “copy off of each other’s papers.” Essentially set up as peer advisory groups, each collection of CEOs is learning from one another’s triumphs and failures, thus accelerating their companies’ paths to success: “I really enjoy seeing people growing their people…my influence is extended beyond the twelve people in the room…I really see it more as being related to the 5,000 employees represented by (those) CEOs.”
Brecht’s journey from Shipley’s Kindergarten to the highest echelons of the business world was informed by the simple idea that she could do anything as long as she worked hard. Inherently drawn to math and science, she declared to her teachers that she wanted to become an aerospace engineer. “The great thing about Shipley,” recalls Brecht, “is that the reaction to your ambition was, ‘Of course, and here is what you need to know in order to do this…and now, get to work.’” She enrolled in the engineering department at Cornell, intent on her goal: “Because of the level of confidence Shipley had [instilled] in me, I never really questioned what I was doing. When I showed up at Cornell there were three girls and maybe 800 boys in my year and I didn’t really notice it…except that it was easy to get a date.”
Graduating in 1972, with no jobs in a gutted aerospace industry, she decided to attend business school at Carnegie Mellon. Briefly pursuing a doctorate in economics, Brecht realized she would rather run things than teach. She moved to Texas in 1975, joining Pennzoil Company, and quickly rose through the ranks. “There were 14,000 employees and I was the only professional woman—but someone had to point that out to me. I will tell you that I did work extra hard. I am not sure if that is simply my nature—I have a lot of that going on.” Indeed, beginning in 1986, she would found Pennzoil’s international division and build it to $80 million in sales, ten overseas manufacturing sites, and sales in 50 foreign countries.
After many globe-trotting years working for Pennzoil and as a private consultant, Brecht finds herself in the happy place of being mostly at home in Houston. She is grateful for the opportunity to engage with and give back to her community, serving on several boards, and supporting what she calls Houston’s “outlier” class of creative art. In addition to her Vistage work, she has also set up peer groups to support clergy in both the Episcopal and Methodist Churches in Texas. And after 35 years of corporate management, Brecht graciously offers this observation: “People are really at their best when they are in service to others…I’m sure I learned this at Shipley.”
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.