Interview with Mark Emkes, recently retired CEO of Bridgestone Americas.How did you get your start in this industry?
I started off changing tires in a store in Houston for 3 months, then got promoted to service manager, and three months later I was assistant store manager and eventually store manager. After 6 months at headquarters (to learn the business), I was sent to Dubai as an export sales rep. The next 21 years I spent outside the US, including stints running Mexico, then Brazil, Latin America, and in 2004, named Chairman and CEO of Bridgestone Americas, which is the largest subsidiary of Bridgestone Corporation in Tokyo.
When did you discover you had developed a leadership philosophy and what is it?
In 1991 when I became President of Bridgestone in Mexico, I realized I had a definitive leadership approach. It consisted of two things; first, management needs to respect the people that work in the company because if the guy at the bottom doesn’t do his job the guy at the top can lose his and secondly, show people you care. People can measure success differently—maybe money or quality of life or community service—but they all want to know you care.
How have you demonstrated that philosophy?
In Brazil I asked to have the first meeting with Union leadership in my office. I was told that just wasn’t done. I insisted. When the Union leaders joined me they arrived with smiles and shared that it was the first time in 17 years they had been asked to meet in that office. Thereafter, we had coffee with Union leadership in my office once a month. At the end of the meetings we would take a picture and I would send it to their homes with a letter thanking them for meeting with me in my office. It is not the cost, it is the respect that establishes good will.
Would you have considered going on Undercover Boss (new reality TV program)?
I have never seen the show but I would do something like that. In fact, I have visited plants at 2am (since we work 24 hours a day and management didn’t routinely visit the night shift).
Were there any other philosophies that you used to guide your leadership?
In addition to the two I mentioned about showing respect and caring, I would add, leaders have to be able to visualize success—be positive and upbeat. If you are going to hit the ball you have to believe you are going to hit the ball! In addition, it is important to plan well. People often trip up here because they try to be clever but it has to be a plan that all 55,000 could understand. Finally, it is about implementation–whatever you plan must be doable. We always strived for “realistically aggressive” plans.
How have you managed through the recession?
We created a 10-year plan in 2005 because we were not profitable in 2004. We took a 10-year outlook because you can’t change manufacturing assets overnight. We restructured, shifted locations of factories, and made an acquisition. By 2009 we were making good money even though our volume was down.
Did you anticipate the recession?
In the tire business, commercial trucking leads you into the recession and out again. That volume began to slow in 2007, so by late 2007 we were starting to deploy cost control measures and in 2008 we developed an economic response team. We continued to spend on safety and quality and tried to hold other costs down. In 2009 we made $349 million in operating profit, but Goodyear lost $4 million in those same markets. The key for any business is to know your leading indicators.
Branding is difficult to do in an industry like yours. How do you differentiate yourself?
In 2007 we decided to invest in sports marketing and were involved in the Super Bowl half time show and the NFL. Later I heard from one of our biggest customers that the Super Bowl sold tires for him better than our technology. People relate to sports. So we got involved with the PGA, NFL, NHL, and Indy 500. Our next task is to institute a pull strategy.
What should the average person look for in a tire?
If you plan to keep the car for five years or more, buy nice tires. There is a trade off in tread grip and mileage. So keep in mind what your driving needs are.
What do you tell a new member of the team?
Throw your heart over the bar and your body will follow
Get involved; no one ascends alone, so pick your passion or charity of choice and reach back and lend a helping hand
Attitude is everything
Exceed expectations, but make sure first, you know what they are
Be the best at what you do; Peyton Manning is a good example of someone who works, studies, and is a master of the game regardless of natural athleticism. Be the best and good things follow.
What one piece of wisdom would you give other leaders?
What has served me well is practicing random acts of kindness. Think where we would be if we all did that.
What other leaders have shaped your thinking about leadership?
I grew up in Indiana, so John Wooden had a big impact on my thinking. Also, Sam Walton’s book—he made the point that a customer can fire anyone just by spending their money some place else.
With a bachelor’s degree in economics from DePauw University and a master’s degree in international management from the Thunderbird School of Global Management, Mark Emkes joined the former Firestone Tire & Rubber Company in 1976 as a college class trainee in trade sales. Following his first assignment changing tires in a company-owned store in Baytown, Texas, he began an international career spanning more than 21 years, with assignments in the United Arab Emirates, Spain, Mexico and Brazil. From 1990 to 1997 he served as President of Bridgestone/Firestone de México, S.A. de C.V. and as President of Bridgestone/Firestone do Brasil Industria e Comercio Ltda. from 1997 to 2000. In 2000 he moved to Nashville, Tenn., to become President of Bridgestone Firestone Latin America, and accepted an assignment as Chairman, CEO and President of Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire, LLC in 2002. In 2004, as Chairman and CEO of Bridgestone Americas Holding, Inc. (as BSAM was known at that time), he assumed responsibility for the Bridgestone Group’s Americas operations which includes North, Central and South America and was elected to the Board of Directors of Bridgestone Corporation. In January of 2009 he was given the additional title of President of BSAM.
On February 28, 2010, after more than 33 years of service with the Bridgestone family of companies, Mark A. Emkes, retired as the company’s Chairman, CEO and President and from his position as a member of the Boards of Directors of BSAM and Bridgestone Corporation, BSAM’s parent company.