The CEO and President for Ford Motor Co. Southern Africa shares the lessons he’s learned as an expat executive and why he believes multinational companies benefit from hiring local executive teams.
Jeffrey Nemeth hails from the U.S. and has been at the helm of Ford South Africa since 2010. He was previously based in Taiwan and Japan. Ford has the second highest vehicle sales in South Africa as of the month of June. The company has an assembly plant in Pretoria, South Africa and an engine manufacturing plant in Port Elizabeth. The company employs roughly 3,700 people in South Africa.
Q: What does leadership mean to you?
One of the most important things about leadership is being able to distill to your team what specifically the challenges are that they need to find a solution for and to make sure the passion for the business exists inside them so that as they’re developing solutions they work collectively to come up with a powerful aligned position on how to solve challenges or take advantage of opportunities.
When I first got here it was all expats sitting around our operating committee table. I don’t think we had a single South African. And they all came from different backgrounds and they were all kind of travelers. They didn’t have an inherent ownership in the sustainable future of the business other than what they had manufactured inside of themselves by being part of Ford Motor Co.
Now we’ve got almost all South Africans on our operating committee. There’s myself and the CFO who are the only non-South Africans. The other 10 people are South Africans. Now when we start talking about a problem and a challenge or an opportunity they all come with an ownership that we didn’t have before. Before we might have been pulled in one direction or the other by one or two members of the operating committee, still making progress but maybe in a zigzag fashion. Now we are much more aligned and we deliver the results so much faster than we did in the past. It’s not really me as a leader, it’s that group acting as the leaders of this organization.
Q: What is the value of having a diverse executive team?
You can bring in expats for their expertise, their technical knowledge, for the opportunities they’ve had around the world to experience global processes and global technologies and bring those in to the fold. It can take your organization to a new level of efficiency. But what they can’t do is they can’t take that technology they learned in Germany, Japan or China and understand how the local team will inculcate it and implement it and execute it in a way that’s efficient and moves the business forward.
Q: What have you learned as a CEO working in different markets?
The whole process of moving a family, it allows you to grow in many ways. Working in different places has attuned me to different cultures, different ways to connect with people, how to motivate and how to inspire. When I first got here I was disappointed with where our performance was, our quality and our sales. When I first came I was telling them you need to do this better. My HR director said, “Do you think you’re motivating the team by continuing to tell them what they aren’t doing very well? Maybe it would be better to take a little bit of time to celebrate their successes.” That was a turning point in understanding how to be a leader in South Africa. It was a huge growing experience for me.
Q: Why is it important to have a designated leadership team to oversea Africa as a region?
When I first got here, in 2010, we had Africa and the Middle East set up as three distinct operations. Southern Africa countries were run out of Shanghai. Northern Africa was run out of Europe. The rest of sub-Saharan Africa was run out of Detroit. We had three distinct business units on the continent and we never talked to each other. The only visibility we had into what was going on in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa was how many rangers they ordered form us. We didn’t know anything else about who the distributors were, what would make them successful or what were challenges for them. So we started thinking. North Africa is a business unit, Europe is a business unit and Asia Pacific is a business unit. Wouldn’t it make sense to have all of Africa consolidated so we can leverage what we know in each region to help each other? It took awhile for that idea to take hold. It was more because of the scale of the operation. In North America we probably sell 4 million cars. In Europe around 2.5 million and in Asia 2 million. And in Africa we sell 100,000. If we include the Middle East it’s about 200,000. We came up with a strategy about a month ago and in the next 12-18 months we will start to implement that strategy.
Photos courtesy of Ford Motor Co.