NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Mark A. Emkes has worked for a lot of bosses—both good and bad—during his nearly 30-year tenure with first Firestone and now Bridgestone.
The one thing the chairman and CEO of Bridgestone Americas Holdings Inc. learned from all those bosses is simple: inspiration works better than intimidation.
"My basic philosophy is to work hard to inspire the people," Emkes said during an interview in his Nashville office. "And I think you accomplish that by respecting the people and helping people develop. Then, at the same time, communicate well."
He credits John Lampe—whom he succeeded on April 1, 2004—for teaching him what it means to be inspirational and have integrity. Emkes recalls Lampe being offered a free ticket to the Indianapolis 500 for his daughter, and Lampe responding that he´d have to pay for it.
"Dwight Eisenhower said it best," Emkes said. " ´To be a leader, you have to have followers. To have followers you have to have their trust. To have their trust you have to have unquestionable integrity.´ And that´s what John Lampe had."
Keep employees informed
Emkes, 52, comes from what he describes as a humble background. He grew up in Indiana and had scholarships to attend college and graduate school, earning a bachelor´s degree from DePauw University in 1975 and an MBA from the Garvin School of International Management the following year.
He started with Firestone in 1976 as an international trainee, and from 1979-1997 worked in management positions in the United Arab Emirates, Spain, Brazil and Mexico. Emkes returned to the U.S. in 2000 and was named president of Bridgestone/Firestone´s Latin American operations. In 2002, he became chairman and CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire L.L.C., a position he still holds in addition to being head of Bridgestone Americas.
And now that he´s in a position of power, he´s made it a point to keep the company´s employees informed, noting he often found himself not as informed as he would have liked while coming up through the company. "Let´s be open and honest and transparent with the people," Emkes said. "If there´s good news, let´s share it. If there´s bad news let´s share it. But let´s keep people informed."
He does this through several avenues: a video message sent to employees quarterly, a monthly newsletter and an e-mail blast. Information includes the usual business overview, but also recognizes employee efforts in community relations and charity work.
"I´m really proud of how our people have stepped up in the community," he said. "We´ve encouraged our people to give back to the communities we call home. That´s a big part of my leadership philosophy is to give back."
For example, workers at the firm´s LaVergne, Tenn., tire plant have adopted a school in town. They serve breakfast two days a week, maintain a clothes closet for students in need, read to the kids once a week and offer tutoring services.
And after the recent hurricanes—on top of monetary donations—the employees gave blood, volunteered to collect money at a Tennessee Titans game, collected food for a food bank and had a bake sale to help some fellow employees who suffered damage to their homes. "It´s very enlightening to see the people step up and give back to the community and help their fellow teammates," Emkes said.
Calling employees "teammates," in fact, is another thing he has brought to the chairman´s office. While it´s been in vogue to call workers such things as "associates" or other terms, the Bridgestone Americas chairman believes the distinction is a real one.
"The fact of the matter is we´re one big team with one big mission, and that´s why we use the word teammate," he said. "We´re all in this together."
Emkes keeps a list of his "CEO Philosophies" hanging on a wall in his office. Besides keeping teammates informed through "open, honest, transparent discussion," those tenets also include one he calls "Eliminate confusion."
It´s similar to the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) philosophy, but he feels his terminology is more direct. It dates back to a couple of years ago, when he read a letter from the firm´s human resources department four times and still couldn´t figure out what the point was.
"Then I realized that if they´ve done it, I´m sure I´ve done it, both with written and verbal communication," he said. "And if we have confusion, imagine all the time and effort we´re wasting."
Focusing on eliminating confusion enables the company to be more focused and efficient, he said. It has reached the point that if, during a meeting, someone is unclear in a presentation, another person in the meeting will say, "You´re not eliminating confusion, you´re creating it."
Another way Emkes has avoided confusion is through the establishment of what he calls "business owners" within Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire.
Since June 2003, the North American Tire unit has been split up into four separate businesses: consumer replacement; consumer original equipment; truck/bus; and off-road products, including OTR, tractor tires and tubes.
Emkes developed this structure because he found that often as companies grow, they evolve into having a number of separate silos. "You have a manufacturing area, a finance area, a sales area," he said. "And often times they don´t speak to each other."
He remembers a time in late 2002, when John Gamauf, president for consumer replacement tires, came into his office and complained about back orders and how it´s unacceptable he couldn´t get products to his dealers. "And the way we were structured, it wasn´t easy to fix that," Emkes said.
But under the "business owner" structure, the president of each of the four units has full responsibility for everything to do within his business.
"For example, in the past, consumer replacement meant sales," Emkes said. "Now, as a business owner, (Gamauf) has influence over what is produced, when it´s produced, where it´s produced. So he now has ownership. That´s exactly what it is. And now that he has the authority to influence production, you know what? He doesn´t come into my office (complaining about back orders)."
Both Gamauf and Michael Martini, president of North American Consumer OE, are big fans of the business ownership system. "He doesn´t dictate," Gamauf said. "He actually allows us to run our business."
Martini said it´s critical to the firm´s success. "You´re doing what you would do if you were running the business," he said. "I think a lot of people when they get into big corporations feel like the entrepreneurial spirit kind of gets held down. We´re really empowered to make the business run and to make the hard decisions that will keep your business in a position of growth for the future."
Both also gave Emkes high marks on his overall leadership of the company.
"Mark brings what I think are really three key attributes for a CEO," Martini said. "No. 1, a clear message and vision for the company. No. 2, a constant willingness to listen. And No. 3, a decisiveness to act."
Said Gamauf: "If I had to use a couple of words, he´s probably the most honest guy I´ve ever worked for and the most respectful man I´ve ever worked for. I really will do everything in my power to produce for him because he treats us with respect."
As Bridgestone Americas moves toward the future, Emkes said it´s important to develop people. He said his firm is like many others that in the past looked at people development as a function of the human resources department. But not anymore.
"That is every manager in this company´s responsibility," Emkes said. "The only way we´re going to develop good leaders is if we develop good people along the way. But we can´t leave it to HR. We have to take people under our wings."
While Bridgestone has a large focus on return on assets, Emkes said the best way to maximize ROA is for the firm to have top-flight talent.
"A lot of companies say people are our most important asset," he said. "Well, ´good people´ are our most important asset. The only way you do that is you select well. And I tell our people time and time again: hire attitudes. Skills we can teach, but it´s pretty difficult to teach people how to smile and be pleasant."
And with that focus on people development, Emkes said he is quite pleased with the staff on hand.
"I think the team is extremely strong, extremely talented," he said. "I don´t think I could ask for better attitudes than the people we have in this organization. The team we have in place today, this team is a winning team."