LAS VEGAS—Keiko Brockel, the recently named president of Nitto Tire U.S.A. Inc., doesn't think of herself as a trailblazer for women in the tire industry, but in reality she is.
She is one of the first, and possibly the first, female president of a tire company division, having taken over as president of Nitto Tire on Oct. 1 from predecessor Tomoshige “Tomo” Mizutani, who became president of Toyo Tire Holdings of Americas Inc. on the same date.
Nitto is a unit of Japan's Toyo Tire & Rubber Co.
Brockel also continues as president of Nitto Tire Canada and previously served as chief operating officer of Nitto U.S.A.
"It's interesting being a woman in the tire industry," she said, in an interview during the recent Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas. "You know I never really felt that until I started getting questions about it."
Nitto, she said, is a “very unique” company. In her post as COO of Nitto the past five and half years, for example, five of the eight senior managers on her management team were women.
“So very progressive,” she said, “but I think it's also a reflection of Nitto's view on things, their progressive nature. But also give credit to Toyo Tire & Rubber Co. Ltd. and Nobuki (Toyo Tire & Rubber President Akira Nobuki) and the management team in terms of their view of recognizing and giving opportunities."
In her new position, Brockel—a third generation Japanese American—is responsible for Nitto's operations in the U.S. and Canada, where the company has experienced steady growth in recent years.
She replaces a legend in Mizutani—a passionate leader who fueled Nitto's growth with auto enthusiasts and through innovative and creative marketing, especially online, where the company has just reached 5 million Facebook fans.
Brockel described her management style as collaborative and gives credit to the teachings of her predecessor.
“Tomo's done a lot of training of us, and the thing is that each of us has a focus area where we can contribute.”
The Nitto culture is one of sharing and transparency, which is done internally as well as externally with customers, she explained. This allows the company and its customers to "have some shared objectives and really try to have a spirit of working together so that both of us can reach our goals," she said.
Nitto is known as a cutting-edge brand, offering lots of social media marketing and close interaction with enthusiasts (the company's fans), a culture Brockel intends to foster. But as Nitto's sales have climbed, so has the need to build support functions within the organization to manage the growth "and prepare us for the future."
This is where Brockel focused much of her time as COO.
"I don't want to say making us corporate, because that's not the essence of Nitto, but at the same time, kind of making sure that we have the infrastructure and support structure to support our growth."
The Nitto culture, its DNA has to be maintained, she stressed. “That's the essence. Our product development continues to put out exciting, innovative products, that's our top priority, but it has to start out with that DNA, the enthusiast.”
Brockel joined Nitto from Canon U.S.A. Inc., where she was vice president of finance and administration. Prior to that, she spent time at Xerox Corp. in various positions including regional controller.
She holds a bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Southern California and a master's degree in business with an emphasis on finance from California State University, Long Beach.
So what brought her to Nitto and the tire industry?
“I was looking for a change,” she said, “and I'll be honest with you. I really didn't think I would be given this opportunity.”
That's because Nitto is a Japanese company, and she was someone totally outside the tire industry and, at the time, had never even purchased a set of tires in her life.
But she went on the interview with Nitto, met Mizutani and was hired. “He's taken a real risk on giving me the opportunity,” Brockel said. “So here I am, five and a half years later."
In considering Nitto as a future employer, Brockel said she researched the company, looking for a firm “that you feel proud of with the brand.” Nitto, she discovered, had a unique brand presence.
But it wasn't until she started working for the company that she realized how different working for a tire company is, compared to the printer and copier businesses.
Each tire segment is unique. "You don't just sell tires," she said. "Each line that we offer appeals to a different market, and so you can't have a vanilla approach to everything."
Xerox and Canon build a great product, she said, “but the emotional attachment that comes with the Nitto product is unreal.”
A copier is a business tool, she continued, but with a tire. there is the safety aspect, "which is Nitto's top priority." Then there's also the tire's design and the emotional attachment.
Nitto, for example, has gotten a posting on its Facebook page of a fan with a tattoo of the company's Trail Grabber tire; another fan shaved his head with the tread pattern of the Nitto Invo, luxury ultra-high-performance radial.
"That kind of passion for the product is really exciting and makes us want to continue to be innovative in what we present to our fan base," Brockel said.
While Nitto is known for performance offerings, Brockel does not see it as a niche or specialty player. She cited the Motivo all-season, ultra-high-performance tire and the 421Q all-season tire for crossover utility and sports utility vehicles, introduced in the last year and a half, as examples of extended size offerings.
“What we like to think is that the Nitto enthusiast drives more than just one vehicle, and we really want to extend that Nitto experience to a broader reach, to other vehicles that a Nitto enthusiast might have, or to his family members,” she said.
In leading Nitto going forward and as the organization grows—it now has about 60 employees—Brockel wants to retain the company's nimbleness and responsiveness to market changes.
“We have the vision, but we recognize the market is very dynamic, especially today more than ever, with social media and things that are coming out, the vehicles, everything is changing,” she said. "I keep referencing back to that Nitto culture. Nitto culture is keeping an eye on that."
She intends to keep cultivating the loyal Nitto fan base, which she credits for the company's sales growth.
But most importantly, as the Nitto organization structure continues to grow, she wants to retain the company's unique culture and to pass that on to new employees as they come on board.
That passion, "that's not going to change," she said. "We want to take risks and we want to be progressive. That's our history. That spirit that Tomo really engrained in all of us, that's something that is our job that we want to continue to maintain.”