Manufacturers across the globe are facing unique challenges when looking to expand their operations during the current pandemic. Despite those challenges, Nokian Tyres proceeded with their plans to open a new facility in Dayton, TN.
In this episode of Get Unstuck & On Target, we interviewed Blake Markham, the HR operations manager for Nokian Tyres, to learn how they managed to get their new facility staffed and off the ground despite the challenges from COVID.
In This Episode, You’ll Learn…
- The challenges Nokian Tyres faced when looking to hire workers for their first manufacturing plant located in North America
- What Blake believes are the most sought after personality traits and skills for the people they employ
- How they managed to overcome the challenges COVID brought to their business plans
- “So one thing we really tried to instill in our employees was ownership. When you think about launching a new facility, you have to have people that’s bought in and understand that their particular role leads up into a bigger scope” – Blake Markham
- “We had to admit that the leadership team had probably chosen some of the wrong people. And some of that was a learning process. A lot of us that actually launched this plant did not have previous tire experience. So we didn’t really know what to look for.” – Blake Markham
- “So when we actually hired the launch team, we primarily looked at previous work history, mostly in manufacturing and education, right. Those are all fine and great. But when you get inside of the tire plant, that is those things go out the window. Tire manufacturing is a pretty complex process with some pretty complex machines.” – Blake Markham
- “From a behavioral standpoint, you’re looking for someone with a strong perseverance. In a launch situation, things are not going to go right. And that’s going to happen quite often, you’re going to have to be able to adjust. Adaptability, or conscientiousness. That is really, really important, too.” – Blake Markham
- “Being able to adapt. Again, it kind of goes back to the perseverance. If things happen. Am I going to sit back and complain and shut down and do those types of things where I’m looking for a solution? So those are the two things that we started looking for, going forward and we have been more successful now.” – Blake Markham
- “And there’s always going to be times when you hire someone and later down the road, they’re not going to work out, and that’s part of business. But since we have found those core competencies, we’ve been more successful in finding employees that contribute to the team.” – Blake Markham
- “We did have some leaders that we hired early on, that unfortunately when the pressure started to be put on in terms of ramping up the plant and they were expected to hit daily numbers and those types of things. Really just started to have that mentality of, if you give me what I need, I can be successful, but until then I can’t do anything.” – Blake Markham
- “You have to have a leadership team that is willing to do the small things, right. You know, your plant managers on the floor in work pants, sweeping and cleaning equipment, those types of things. You can’t have someone that just has these grand ideas and delegates to other people. Everyone has to be part of the team.” – Blake Markham
Links & Resources Mentioned…
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Mike O'Neill: Hello, and welcome back to the Get Unstuck & On Target Show, I'm Mike O'Neill with Bench Builders and we're speaking with thought leaders to uncover tips to help you break down barriers that are keeping you or your business stuck.
Joining me today is Blake Markham. Blake is the HR operations manager for Nokian Tyres based in Dayton, Tennessee.
Blake Markham: Thanks Mike.
Mike O'Neill: I'm glad to have you with us today. Let me introduce you a little bit further. Blake was one of the first employees hired when Nokian Tyres broke ground and ultimately started production in September of 2019.
But since Blake has been part of several startups, I've asked him to share some of the things that he and his company have learned as they've ramped up Nokian Tyres first North American operation. Blake it's good to have you with us today. Welcome again.
Blake Markham: Thanks Mike. Thanks for having me.
Mike O'Neill: I'm noticing, did you have behind you a picture of what appears to be the facility there? Am I seeing that correctly?
Blake Markham: Yes, you're correct. So this is our facility in Dayton, Tennessee,
Mike O'Neill: And as I'm looking at it, it looks as if you've got a relatively large solar farm as part of that.
Blake Markham: Yeah. So I think we have somewhere about 8,200 solar panels for our solar farm. Actually it kinda is a dual purpose. It actually serves as an overhang for parking as well. So it kind of keeps the weather off our employees as they walk into the facility.
Mike O'Neill: Oh, that is brilliant. For those who don't know about Nokian Tyres, can you share a little bit about your company please?
Blake Markham: Sure. So we are based in Nokia, Finland. So that's where our headquarters are. We have three manufacturing facilities. One of those is in Nokia, Finland. One is in Vsevolozhsk, Russia, which is right outside of St. Petersburg. And then the third and brand new facility, in Dayton, Tennessee. We manufacture and produce both passenger car tires as well as heavy commercial tires. Our plant in Dayton will primarily be focused on passenger car tires, at least for the near future.
And there could be things coming down the road. We are very — some of our core values are safety for our end users and also sustainability. So that kind of leads into the solar panels. We actually, here recently, achieved a very coveted award, in terms of a lead certification — level 4 Silver for our production facility.
So we actually became the first US tire plant to achieve that mark. So that's something we're very, very proud of.
Mike O'Neill: Congratulations! I know that the commitment to the environment and being a good steward is an important core value for Nokian Tyres based on looking at your website. Am I reading that one, correct?
Blake Markham: Yes. That is correct.
Mike O'Neill: You know, tire production — it strikes me as being a very technical manufacturing role there. Can you give us a sense of how does a company go from breaking ground to producing tires. What are the major steps that a company goes through to get production up and going?
Blake Markham: Well, like you said, a lot of, a lot of technical aspects that the tire manufacturers, especially our facility, lots of automation and those types of things.
But it's a long road. Obviously you have to start off by hiring your workforce alongside with the construction project.
So we first start off as a, essentially two different projects, right? You have someone, one part of the team is working on the construction and getting equipment installed and all those things that go along with that. Then you had another part of the organization that is focused on the people side.
Just kind of walking through a little bit of our timeline. We actually hired our launch team in April 1st of 2019. So that was a core group of around 60 employees. So they all started in April. We put all of those employees through a one-month orientation, where they went through OSHA 10.
That's what they got their certification for OSHA 10. And we put them through an introduction to lean manufacturing along with a whole number of other things. after our, onboarding, we actually sent probably around seventy-five percent of that group over to Vsevolozhsk, Russia, which is one of our facilities that I spoke about earlier.
So our employees went over there for a six-week training to really start learning how to use the equipment. Right. It's because we were still in construction mode. We didn't have all the equipment installed and all those types of things. And we wanted to ensure that when the plant was ready, our employees were also ready and there was not a long learning curve once everything was up and going.
So that was the reasoning behind sending those employees over to Russia. Also, some of those, a small handful actually got to go to Nokia, Finland as well, to train there.
Everyone came back, around the middle of June of 2019. And at that point we really started commissioning machinery. So a large number of the equipment was installed.
We still had some things all being installed there, but really employees getting on the machines are learning how to turn them on and run them. And really just, like I said, starting the commissioning process. And then essentially from June, 2019, up until the end of 2019, those types of activities were ongoing.
We did start some small production in quarter four of 2019, but nothing on a large scale, really just primarily testing our systems and making sure our things were ready to go. And then we actually started commercial production at the beginning of this year.
Mike O'Neill: You know, you mentioned forming a core team that that core team went through at least a month of onboarding and then a large portion of those went to Russia.
Can you speak a little bit about — what were you hoping to accomplish there? Obviously there's a technical aspect that goes along with onboarding and training, but tell a little more about the cultural aspects.
Blake Markham: Yeah. So we spent a large portion of the, at least the first month really trying to build the culture that we wanted to carry into the manufacturing process, later down the road.
So one thing we really tried to instill in our employees was ownership. When you think about launching a new facility, you have to have people that's bought in and understand that their particular role leads up into a bigger scope, right.
And owning those processes. So we spend a lot of time, trying to install that in the, in the orientation. Also just team building, right? Having that core group, everyone started the same, the same date, or very close to that. People know that, "Hey, we're in this together." And that was part of sending people over to Russia.
Obviously. Yes, there was a technical standpoint in terms of learning the equipment and machinery that we couldn't do that in the us cause we didn't have another facility. And I doubt one of our competitors was going to let us come in and learn how to make tires in their factories. Right. So. obviously that was part of it in another Russia, but also just the team building event, in that.
Right. So when they were in Russia, when they were not working, we had a lot of team building activities where they actually got to go out in St. Petersburg and see a lot of historical landmarks and those types of things. So it just built that comradery for that core launch team.
Mike O'Neill: This is fascinating. Of the two categories that you just mentioned, and that is ownership and team-building, which ones would prove to be the most challenging?
Blake Markham: Oh, a good question. I would say probably that ownership part of it, Because a lot of times people can come together as a team. And the ownership really depends on what kind of organizations people had worked in the past. Right?
So if someone comes into in the, in with the mindset of, you know, that's not my job or I'm on this line, don't ask me to go over here and help my other employee.
So I would probably say ownership if, if I had to choose.
Mike O'Neill: You spent a month in onboard and you spent at least six weeks when they were, in Russia and then they came back and began ramping up. I hope this question is going to be a fair question. But did you find in the early stages that you might have made some mistakes in some of the hiring choices you've made that these folks just were not the right fit?
Blake Markham: Yes. And we actually got back from Russia and actually employees kind of get the train wheels taken off, if you want to say it that way. And they were really having to work on equipment by themselves. We did start to see that we had probably some employees — and it kind of comes down to two different aspects.
So we had some employees that were not probably technically sound enough to really efficiently run the equipment that we knew they would have to when we got full ramp up. They could probably do it now at a slower speed, but when we're in full production, they were going to struggle. Oh, so that was one aspect of it.
We also see more on the behavioral side of it, and we had some employees that did not take that ownership, right. They didn't want to buy into the bigger picture. You know, it's not my fault if only that next group would give me what I need, I would be successful. Those type of attitudes.
In both cases, we knew that there was going to be a handful of members of the launch team that were not going to make it to the end.
So, what we did as a team is we had to take ownership, right?
We had to admit that the leadership team had probably chosen some of the wrong people. And some of that was a learning process. A lot of us that actually launched this plant did not have previous tar experience. So we didn't really know what to look for.
So when we actually hired the launch team, we primarily looked at previous, work history, mostly in manufacturing, and education, right. Those are all fine and great. But when you get inside of the tire plant, that is those things go out the window. Tire manufacturing is a pretty complex process with some pretty complex machines.
So what we started doing a torch probably towards the end middle of the end of 2019, is we kind of went away from that "let's just look at previous experience in education." We actually started to sit down and try to understand what are our competencies that we need for our employees at Nokian Tyres. right.
And so we started looking at from a technical standpoint, mechanical aptitude. So how mechanically sound are you? If something breaks down, are you willing to get in there and fix it? And do you have the abilities to get in there and fix it. So we started looking for that in our new employees.
I then also from a behavioral standpoint, you're looking for someone with a strong perseverance. In a launch situation, things are not going to go right. And that's going to happen quite often, you're going to have to be able to adjust. Adaptability, or conscientiousness. That is really, really important, too.
Being able to adapt. Again, it kind of goes back to the perseverance. If things happen. Am I going to sit back and complain and shut down and do those types of things where I'm looking for a solution? So those are the two things that we started looking for, going forward and we have been more successful now.
And there's always going to be times when you hire someone and later down the road, they're not going to work out and that's part of business. But since we have found those core competencies, because we've been more successful in finding employees that contribute to the team.
Mike O'Neill: I appreciate you sharing that and how y'all learned and how you adapted, from that learning as you were kind of laying out the timeline.
I got the sense that you were beginning, at least a pilot production in the fourth quarter of 2019. And I assume that you therefore were looking to kind of begin ramping up regular production at the beginning of 2020, was that the original plan?
Blake Markham: Yes. So like you mentioned, at the end of 2019 a lot of us got prototyping and testing tires, just making sure we're stressing our systems so that when we turn everything on in January of 2020, we were confident that we could make commercial production and continuously raise the volumes on a daily, weekly, monthly basis as we have went through 2020.
Mike O'Neill: So you start 2020 with those ambitions and then something like COVID came along. How has COVID impacted your plans?
Blake Markham: Just like everyone else or at least mostly everyone else. COVID has thrown a wrench in the entire plan. So like I said, our plan was to start in January and just really start increasing volume throughout 2020.
But like you said, COVID hit. So, actually, we shut down our facility, essentially the entire month of April. Partly due, not due to any positive cases or anything like that inside the facility, but more out of an abundance of caution for our employees. And then also just looking at the global demand.
We could see already forecasting that there was going to be an issue, and customers buying tires, and therefore there's no reason to just build up a crazy amount of excess inventory. So we shut down in April, like I said, an entire month. And then we came back online, in May. It slowly started ramping back up — a lot of our equipment and processes.
Anytime it's down for a long period of time, there's some catch-up. Machines don't like to be shut down for long periods of time. So we came back in May and it's kind of had a slow restart. And then in June we were brought back to full speed and, had things going again.
Mike O'Neill: To what extent would you feel that the attention to good onboarding the attention to good team building, the attention to a ramp up to get production-quality tires — how well do you think all of that prepared you for this setback of COVID?
Blake Markham: So I would say compared to launching the entire facility, COVID was probably not even on the same scale. So ever since, at least I would have been at Nokian it's been challenge, after challenge, after challenge. In terms of, you know, hiring people, then getting everyone to Russia, then to getting everyone back from Russia. Then getting the machine started.
So we kind of seen it as, you know, it wasn't something that was going to break us. We've been through challenges before and we've overcome them and we're confident we'll overcome COVID as well.
Mike O'Neill: Well, it sounds as if this is presenting an opportunity for a team that's already working well together to persevere through and be that much stronger on the other side. You know, you did share with us that some of the things that you all learned as leaders is that we may have made some mistakes.
We may have put some people on this core team that we're not the best fit. Is it possible that some of the early decisions as to people who might be on a leadership team might not have been the right choice?
Blake Markham: Yes. That can be the case as well. So we actually seen, I can't, they were not so much on the technical aspect that I was talking about earlier that was more probably operators and technician level employees, but more on the behavioral type things.
We did have some leaders that we hired early on, that unfortunately, when the pressure started to be put on in terms of ramping up the plant and they were expected to hit daily numbers and those types of things. Really just started to have that mentality of, if you give me what I need, I can be successful, but until then I can't do anything.
So we had to make some changes there. And, get people who had the same mindset and it, part of the culture we were trying to build. When you're launching a plan, you really have one chance to establish a culture moving forward. If you miss that chance and you don't set the tone the way you want it to, and then you spend all this time trying to catch up.
So we knew that we had to make a change immediately when those type of behaviors starting to appear. And that's what we did. And we got some new, some new team members on that, you know, fit the culture well. And here we are today and I'm moving forward.
Mike O'Neill: You know, for those folks who have never been through a startup, they probably have these notions about how that works.
You've given us a kind of a snapshot of what those major things that need to happen, what that requires to get up. But if you were to describe what might be some misconceptions, some myths out there about startups, what myth or myths would you want to debunk about startups?
Blake Markham: Hm, that's a good question. I don't know if I have any myths to debunk, but I can kind of speak to what it takes to be part of the startup. If I could go that route.
Being in a startup is a totally different beast — if you want to put it that way compared to just normal operations. Especially in our situation. So we were the first plant in the United States, so we didn't have anything, you know, we didn't have a sister plant six hours away that had all these processes that we could take and use. You know, all these things were coming over from Russia and Finland.
A lot of those things were things we could use, but you know, it's a totally different culture in the US compared to Europe, and there's a language barrier and those types of things. So in terms of when you have a startup and in ours, in particular, it's a lot of hard work. you have to roll your sleeves up.
You have to have a leadership team that are willing to do the small things, right. You know, your plant managers on the floor in work pants, sweeping and cleaning equipment, those types of things. You can't have someone that just has these grand ideas and delegates to other people. Everyone has to be part of the team.
And like I said, we're willing to roll their sleeves up and get what needs to be done — done. Because there's not anyone else to do it. Right. A lot of times in a launch situation, it's very lean. In terms of head count, because you don't have, you don't have volume or product going out the door to offset those calls.
So they're not willing to staff very heavily. So, there's a lot of hard work and adaptability and ownership. You have to own the processes. You have to own your mistakes. You have to be able to say, oops, we made a mistake. What do we have to do to correct is, and not be too prideful to say, you know, I'm not changing that. I'm an expert. I've done this three times before you need to listen to me.
You can't have that type of mentality from anyone, not only leadership, but also the, even the operators on the floor. Right?
We're all new. We're all learning things. It's okay to make mistakes. As long as we don't continue to repeat them.
Mike O'Neill: That's beautifully said. I would think that folks probably are simplifying what it takes to start, an operation. I have to be very mindful of the product that you're making. It's gotta be right, because you're putting those tires on the family vehicle and there's just no room for quality errors that can result in injury or worse.
So it sounds as if you all have been doing a lot of things, right. In keeping with the theme of this podcast, can you describe a situation by which you sense that the organization maybe found itself stuck? And if that's the case, what did y'all do to get unstuck?
Blake Markham: So I would hate to, I'm going to go back to another example I have that I provided earlier. But the situation where we found ourself in was the situation where I was talking about earlier, where we may have been hiring using the wrong hiring criteria.
Like I talked about earlier, so we were only looking at previous experience and trying to relate just general manufacturing, on the whole.
So once we actually started to know our processes and really when we went to Russia and seeing how things were done and, you know, spoke with our colleagues that have been doing this for a long time. That's when we started to make the changes. Instead of just looking at previous experience, yes, that's important. That's great. But we started then realizing what relative previous experience there is, right?
If you're just working in, you know, automotive, that doesn't necessarily mean that you can come into the tire manufacturing and do the same type of work and have the same type of success.
So really starting to focus on those competencies that we're looking for — mechanical aptitude, perseverance, adaptability ownership. And then when we started doing that and incorporated that into our hiring process, we were more successful and were able to find employees that were a better fit for us.
Without that I think we would still, the reason that I say we were kind of stuck, we were not making the progress that we wanted to. We didn't continue to see that daily output increasing, increasing, increasing, because we were having issues, running equipment and those types of things.
Mike O'Neill: You might not have been stuck, but it was slowing you down — you're not meeting the targets that you're trying to do. It sounds as if you owned up to it, made the adjustments, learn from that and moved on.
And I think that's a credit to you and the team that you get a chance to work with. You know, Blake, you have very well summarized in a short amount of time many of the challenges that go into a startup.
But if you wanted to summarize some of the things that you want to make sure that the listeners heard you share today, what be some of the takeaways you want to make sure that we have.
Blake Markham: Okay. Yeah, sure. I would say one takeaway is, you know, when you start thinking about hiring employees and for a launch situation to really closely work with, if you have, you know, sister plants or, you know, part of a bigger organization is to leverage those resources.
Ask them, what do you look for in your employees? Especially if you have someone else in the United States. It's more closely related and they know the workforce and those types of things. So when you start to hire your launch team, know what you're looking for?
What are those competencies? What type of culture do I want to build in a year from now — start hiring people today to build that culture, right? Because it doesn't happen overnight.
The other thing is having a leadership team that is willing to, like I said earlier, roll up their sleeves and do whatever's necessary.
It's going to be a lot of long days. There's going to be a lot of times where you just want to throw your hands up and say, now why in the world did I ever get into myself into this situation? And then ownership, we're part of something really big. Most of them, we are in a launch situation. there's a lot of pressure on the, on the leadership team.
But being able to own your own mistakes like we talked about earlier. If you've made a hiring mistake, Hey, let's fix it. It's not anybody's fault. Let's learn from that it's okay. Let's not make excuses and point at someone else. So I will say those three things, would probably be something I would want to summarize.
Mike O'Neill: Blake, you have been so forthright. I appreciate your willingness to share your experiences — what y'all have collectively, have learned.
If our listeners want to reach out to you and connect with you online, what's the best way for them to do that?
Blake Markham: Yeah, so they can find me on LinkedIn, Blake Markham
Mike O'Neill: and spell that last name so they can get that correct?
Blake Markham: Yeah. So Markham is M A R K H A M.
Mike O'Neill: And since we're spelling, I also want to point out Nokian Tyres. Tires is spelled a little differently, spell tires the way you all spell it.
Blake Markham: So tires with the way we spell is T Y R E S.
Mike O'Neill: All right, so Nokian Tyres. and I just made the connection after looking into this Nokia and being originally from Nokia, Finland.
So again, Blake, thank you for your willingness to be with us today. I really appreciate the time you've spent and the insights that you have shared.
Blake Markham: Thanks, Mike.
Mike O'Neill: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us for this episode of Get Unstuck & On Target. We've lined up great thought leaders, light Blake, that I'm sure you'll enjoy getting to know. We upload the latest episode every Thursday, and I hope you'll subscribe via Apple, Spotify, or your favorite platform.
But if you've been listening to my discussion with Blake and you're realizing that perhaps something's keeping you or your company stuck. Let's talk, visit unstuck.show and schedule a call.We'll explore what's got you and your company stuck and what maybe you can do to overcome that. So I want to thank you for joining us and I hope you've picked up some tips that will help you get unstuck and on target. Until next time.