John A. Romero is a well-traveled Goodyear manager, appropriate for someone in the tire business.
Romero grew up in Santa Fe, N.M., and attended junior college at the New Mexico Military Institute on a football scholarship. He finished college at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla., and after working for an engineering firm there, he decided to try something new and was hired as a tire builder at a Goodyear plant. It turned out to be the start of a more than two-decade career with Goodyear, during which he held management roles in a number of plants. His current assignment, which began in December, brought him from Alabama to the Town of Tonawanda, to be plant manager of the Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America complex on Sheridan Drive. The site employs about 1,100 people who make about 4 million tires a year.
Romero, 52, said he has benefited from working in plants in different parts of the country, and he wants to do what he can to help keep the Tonawanda plant competitive.
Q: What are your early impressions of the Tonawanda plant?
A: [It’s a] really engaged workforce, very prideful organization, very dedicated to their process. And I think they take every opportunity to demonstrate that we know how to make the best tires available, and we want to ensure that this factory stays here for a long time. I think when you come to the business piece of it, the people are very engaged in the overall cost control, waste generation. They’re involved in safety. I think we have lots of different teams and problem-solving work groups that allow them to get involved in making decisions in the factory.
Q: You have worked in a number of Goodyear plants. What stands out about this one?
A: This factory is 90 years old, and I’ll tell you, they’ve really done a good job with the upkeep, the overall organization and presentation of the factory. The facility is in really good shape for the age that it is. That’s not quite the case in every factory that I’ve been in. But I think the people here stand out. You can tell there’s been a lot of business communication prior to my coming here, and it’s easy to go out and have dialogue with them and talk about the business end, the things that we have to change.
I keep going back to how manufacturing is different from what it was years ago. Years back, we wanted people just to come in and make things. And that’s really all that we wanted them to do. Today, it’s about that engaged workforce, how do you get them to contribute and offer their opinions? We always say that the hourly associates are the experts. They know the equipment, they know the process. The repetitiveness of doing it every day makes them the expert. So I think what we try to do is draw upon that expertise and to get them to say, ‘If you had your way, how would you do this?’
Q: The hourly workforce is unionized. How do you try to cultivate a good relationship with them?
A: Communication is the key. We are a very firm believer in keeping the union abreast of the state of the business, the state of the factory, key initiatives and current performance. We meet with our local [Steelworkers] union every Thursday at noon, rain or shine, it doesn’t matter what’s happening. We feel that’s an important relationship we have to foster on a regular basis. We understand that they have a responsibility of representation, as well as they understand we have a business to run. I think that common ground and them understanding what we’re trying to accomplish, it really allows us to do some of the things that otherwise I don’t think we could.
Q: How can the Tonawanda plant stay viable within Goodyear?
A: A couple of things. Most importantly is cost and efficiency. But then [ability] to change. The tires that we make today are a whole lot more complex than what were made 20 years ago. There’s a whole lot more precision in making those tires. And so what we have to do is, with the technology we have available to us, how do we become the most efficient tire manufacturing organization out there? At the same time, how do we keep people energized and wanting to improve upon what we’re already doing? So that continuous improvement piece always comes to mind.
Q: How is the market for tires nowadays?
A: We’ve kind of done what the rest of the economy has overall. Right now, for this year, I think we’re stable at a [production] ticket that should remain flat for the majority of the year. I don’t see anything on the horizon that tells us we’re going to do any different from what’s in our original plan.
Q: This plant produces multiple types of tires. What is that like to manage?
A: That’s a unique piece of this facility. We have the motorcycle line, we have a consumer line and we have a medium radial truck line. And that does give you a little bit of an advantage in that you have three different product lines. But at the same time, it affords more complexity for the factory. You’re making so many more components than you would if you only had one product line.
One of the things that really sticks out in this factory is the motorcycle [tire] manufacturing. There’s a lot of guys in here in the factory who ride motorcycles. There’s a lot of pride behind that product line, as well. … We’re the only U.S. maker of motorcycle [tires], so that is kind of a stake in the ground for us.
Q: How do you adapt the plant’s production to meet market demand?
A: It’s understanding what the market really wants, being able to forecast the types of tires people want. We have another key how-to that we call operational excellence. It ties our sales and marketing to the actual operations in the factory. … What that really means is, you have a type of tire that the customer wants, but can the plant really make that tire? Do we have the technology to make the tires that people are going to want out in the future? So what we’re doing is we’re looking out ahead of what tires are going to sell down the road.