Honda's U.S. hiring pitch: No experience needed
Company aimed to build loyalty through on-the-job development, opportunity
"I know nothing about the auto business," said Ernst, then 27, who worked in a nearby steel mill. "As a teenager, I was a motorcycle enthusiast. But I know nothing about mass-producing cars or motorcycles or engines. So why me?"
Responded Toyoji Yashiki, manager of Honda's engine plant in Anna, Ohio: "You show a passion for motorcycles. We can always teach you how to do things the way Honda prefers. We believe at Honda that you can turn your interests into your job."
Both men would advance within the company. In 1992, Yashiki became president of Honda of America. Today, Ernst is senior vice president of Honda's multivehicle and engine plant in Lincoln, Ala.
Since Honda began staffing up in 1977, thousands of its American assembly workers, department managers and even company executives might have asked the same question Ernst posed more than two decades ago: Why me?
Honda made a conscious decision to hire employees who lived near the factories it would build, rather than dip into the well of established U.S. auto industry talent in places such as southeastern Michigan. Proven talent, the company reasoned, would cost more than undeveloped talent.
At least as important, Honda wanted to start with a clean sheet of paper in America. It wanted its recruits to learn the industry Honda's way. It sought to build company loyalty through on-the-job development and personal opportunity, not just pay raises and benefits.
"When I was in the position of hiring engineers, I tried to hire some people from other automakers," Ernst told Automotive News. "I discovered that they tended to be much more specialized in their expertise.
"Here, we learn to do a lot of different functions. We like it that way. People from other companies don't like that idea, so it's kind of difficult to hire them."
Off the farm
Al Kinzer was the first American hired by Honda in Ohio. Kinzer, a former part-time mayor of a small town in Virginia, was personnel manager of Perkins Diesel in Canton, Ohio, when Honda came calling.
He conceded he knew nothing about motorcycles when Shige Yoshida, then executive vice president of Honda of America Manufacturing, tapped him to begin recruiting others to launch the company's motorcycle plant.
Yoshida liked the idea of hiring from central Ohio's farm communities. Farm life required the same sort of self-sufficiency that Honda championed in its manufacturing culture. Farmers fixed their own tractors. Honda line managers fixed their own equipment.
Yoshida initially asked Kinzer to limit his recruiting to within 100 miles of Marysville. That radius grew as the plant grew. In 1982, Honda opened an auto assembly line next to the motorcycle plant.
Honda did not limit its hiring of employees from nonautomotive backgrounds to assembly workers or farmers. In 1984, the Marysville plant's first manager died unexpectedly. His successor was Scott Whitlock, a Columbus real estate lawyer.
Whitlock had represented Honda on local property issues, but could he run the auto plant?
"Honda had a certain culture I recognized from my own life," Whitlock recalls today from his home in Columbus. "My father had worked for Caterpillar tractor, which was a very engineering-driven company. As a kid, I used to walk through the plant with him. What people on the assembly line had to say mattered a great deal to him."
Similarly, Whitlock said, his law firm maintained "a culture built on trust and respect and valuing what people said. It was a partnership that had lasted 75 years based on oral agreements. We had no written partnerships."
Honda espoused the same values, Whitlock said. "Though it was an auto plant," he said, "I felt at home there."
Photo credit: COURTESY OF THE MARYSVILLE JOURNAL-TRIBUNE
Call for backup
Whitlock and Ernst said they appreciated the involvement of experienced company advisers from Honda's Japanese headquarters in plant decisions. "Important decisions were shared," Whitlock said. "You got a great deal of support and help from people who were very smart."
Whitlock became executive vice president of Honda of America before he returned to his law firm in 1995. In 1984, Honda had hired another local lawyer with no industry experience, Susan Insley, to run its sprawling, vertically integrated engine plant in Anna.
Kinzer also ran the Anna plant in the 1980s. His experience there led BMW AG to hire him in 1992 to oversee the launch of its first U.S. plant, near Spartanburg, S.C.
Honda still hires local workers and trains them from the ground up, Ernst said. At its Canadian auto plant in Alliston, Ontario, Honda recruited Mike Oatridge from a local aluminum die-casting company to be a welder. Oatridge had no welding experience but took the job. Eventually he became manager of Alliston's welding operations, getting two critical welding patents that Honda uses at other plants. Oatridge now is vice president of operations at Honda's Alabama subsidiary.
George Graber worked in Ohio in technical support for Baumfolder Corp., a German maker of bookbinding equipment. Honda saw in him a zeal for maintenance and repair and an understanding of precision and machine tolerances.
Graber created the tool engineering department at Honda's Alabama subsidiary. In 2005, he led an engine expansion project in Alabama and now heads engine operations there.
Said Ernst: "Honda was a small, independent company in the beginning. It didn't have a lot of people who could afford to be good at one specific thing. We've always looked for people who had some sense of what customers wanted from the product and had some ability to deliver it."
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