Mark Emkes learned an important lesson from his first assignment in 1976 with the former Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.: changing tires at a company-owned store.
He was fresh from receiving his master's degree in business administration from the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz., and was an international trainee for Firestone.
“If you learn anything from changing tires, it teaches you humility,” said Emkes, who retired Feb. 28 as chairman, president and CEO of Bridgestone Americas Inc. after more than 33 years with Firestone and Bridgestone.
Emkes came from a humble background, so he was no stranger to physical work. But he said once you have your MBA, you kind of hope those days are behind you.
Firestone, though, had the new trainee spend three months changing tires—then one of the company's most basic positions but also one of its most vital.
“When you finish working at 6 p.m. and you look down at your hands and they're all black from the tires, you know there are no free passes,” he said in an interview shortly after his retirement announcement.
For more than two decades after he joined the company, Emkes worked all around the world for Firestone and Bridgestone, with assignments in the United Arab Emirates, Spain, Mexico and Brazil. He served as president of Bridgestone/Firestone de Mexico S.A. de C.V from 1990-97 and president of Bridgestone/Firestone do Brasil Industria e Comercio Ltda. from 1997 to 2000.
He moved to Nashville, Tenn., in 2000 to become president of Bridgestone Firestone Latin America and was named chairman, CEO and president of Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire L.L.C. in 2002. Two years later he was picked to lead Bridgestone Americas, taking responsibility for Bridgestone Group's operations in North, Central and South America, and was elected to Bridgestone Corp.'s board of directors.
Emkes said whenever he gets a chance to speak to college students—normally a couple of times a year—he advises them to get international exposure, be it studying or traveling.
“You need to broaden your horizons and expose yourself to different cultures and ways of doing business,” he said. “The world is getting smaller, but there still are differences in cultures. Those who understand that do well. Those who don't normally don't do as well.”
The newly retired Bridgestone executive said his global experience helped him embrace the diversity of the nationalities, and that in turn helped him as a leader.
“These differences that come in from around the world have broadened our thought process,” Emkes said. “We've implemented ideas that have come in from Latin America.”
One change Bridgestone made that came from outside the headquarters region was the rationalization of tire production. He said the original thought process was to make every tire line in every factory. But that was shown not to be the best way to do business.
“Everyone wants to make the high performance lines, but they had to work as a team and make the decisions where best to produce each line of tires,” he said.
Emkes is quick to rattle off a number of accomplishments he is proud of during his tenure as the head of Bridgestone Americas—but not without first stating that all of these were the “results of a tremendous team effort.”
Those accomplishments included:
—The implementation of an open, honest transparent process within the management of the firm. “A company gets better when management embraces diversity of thought,” he said. “Employees need to know it's OK to have a different opinion.”
—The upcoming new technical center in Akron. One of his last acts as Bridgestone Americas chairman was to come to Akron Feb. 18 for the groundbreaking ceremony for the new $100 million technical center, which should be completed by the end of 2011.
Though the company headquarters have been away from the city of Firestone's birth for years, the manufacturer still employs about 1,000 people there. Emkes calls these employees the firm's “brain trust,” because both the technical center and main research and development facility are in Akron. “R&D will now have a world-class facility,” he said.
—The $1.05 billion acquisition of Bandag Inc., completed in 2007. That gave the company the opportunity to jump deep into the retread market to complement its new tire offerings. “It's opened a lot of doors in the Americas and worldwide,” Emkes said.
—The escalation of Bridgestone's sports marketing efforts. Besides its traditional participation in auto racing, the tire firm broadened out with tie-ins to the PGA, NFL and NHL. He said this activity has really given a boost to the Bridgestone brand, which until recent years lagged behind the awareness of the Firestone name.
“The needle started to move (for the Bridgestone brand) with participation with the PGA and NFL,” he said. “Brand awareness turns into more sales.”
—Efforts to put in nature habitats at four of the firm's tire plants. Emkes has long been vocal about the need for his company and the industry to operate in a more environmentally friendly manner. At these factories, the company—often with the help of Boy and Girl Scout troops—planted trees, put in hiking trails and opened the area up to the communities and schools so children could learn about nature.
“If you had told me 20 years ago that we'd have nature habitats at our tire plants, I'd have said you were crazy,” he said.
For these efforts, Bridgestone reaps many benefits, both tangible and intangible, according to Emkes. “It's not all about the bottom line,” he said. “It's part of our responsibility to give back to the communities we call home. … And if the community feels good about us, when they change their tires, there's a chance they'll put on Bridgestone tires.”
—Decisions to close high-cost factories. During his tenure, a number of tire facilities were shuttered, which in turn lowered the firm's cost structure and helped it start rebounding from the recession much quicker.
He said the firm always will invest heavily in safety and quality, but everything else in the cost structure is fair game. “(Plant closings) are nasty decisions,” Emkes said. “But you have to look out for the future of the existing teammates and shareholders. If you don't make those decisions, you won't be around for the long term. A lot of companies went bankrupt in 2009.”
Company going forward
For the latest fiscal year, Bridgestone Americas showed an operating profit of $349 million, the best performance of any Bridgestone Group unit. The outgoing executive is quite confident that those replacing him will keep Bridgestone Americas on its successful path.
With Emkes' departure, Bridgestone named Asahiko Nishiyama to succeed him as chairman and Gary Garfield as CEO and president. In addition, Eduardo Minardi will take the new position of Bridgestone Americas chief operating officer, and also will be chairman, CEO and president of Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations.
“All three are open, honest and transparent,” Emkes said. “All have high character values and integrity. They know the importance of doing the right thing.”
Just 57, Emkes said he had made a commitment to his wife, Conchi, three years ago that when their youngest daughter went off to college, he would retire. He said such changes normally are made at the company in February, and he knew he couldn't leave last year—his daughter started college last August—because of the difficult economic times.
But by the end of 2009, he said it was clear the business was improving and the company had made significant headway with its sports marketing, so he could call it a career. “It's nice to go when the numbers are good and the momentum is strong,” he said.
He is quick to point out that he won't be leaving the business world behind completely. He will be serving on the boards of two publicly traded companies. The time commitment per year? Roughly 16 days.
The couple plans to split its time between their home in Nashville and a family apartment in Spain, from where his wife hails. But don't look for Emkes to get restless and make a return to the business world full time.
“I've hit it hard for well over 33 years,” he said. “I've lived in five countries. I've visited 55 countries. I just think it's time.”