Elizabeth Umberson, 60
Vice President, Head of Materials Management, ZF North America
Location: Livonia, Mich.
Education: B.B.A., operations management, Texas A&M University
What drew you to the auto industry? It wasn’t the industry that drew me, it was the company. My family and I were living and working in Houston for a large manufacturing company that manufactured components for the rotating jet aircraft engine and also for oil field equipment, and in Houston, it’s a big city, we had three small children. It’s just hot all the time. We decided that we wanted to live in a smaller town and in a different place.
First automotive job: It was in 1994, and I was the purchasing manager for [ZF’s] plant in Gainesville, Ga.
Big break: My big break was in 1999, when I was promoted to be the plant manager. I was the first female plant manager in the entire ZF Group. I was a little apprehensive. Being the first at anything, you want to make sure that you do a good job. I just wanted to make sure that we were running that plant and that operation the best we could and that everybody was going to get credit for it and that the team felt as responsible as I felt in accomplishing that plant’s goals.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Today I would say COVID. But when ZF decided to diversify, we decided that we wanted to produce a gearbox, or a transmission, for wind turbines. The challenge was to design and manufacture a product that we had never made before. On top of that, we had to build a new plant in North America to produce it, and we had to find a completely new supply base. It was daunting.
You’ve been in the industry 26 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? When we acquired TRW in 2015, that was a huge acquisition because TRW was nearly the size of ZF. Prior to the merger, ZF had a completely decentralized purchasing organization. After the merger, we decided globally that we would have a centralized purchasing organization with a global commodity structure, and it was huge amounts of changes in process and in organization.
What work achievement are you most proud of? Building the plant — I was able to build a greenfield site to produce the wind turbine gearboxes in Gainesville. That was quite a significant accomplishment, and not everybody gets to build a plant in their career. The whole TRW acquisition and merger, not everybody also gets to do in their career.
What do you struggle with? I think I struggle the most with the status quo. We tend to have a mindset that because something has been that way or because something is hard to change, that we should just accept the status quo. Some changes are hard just because there’s a lot of steps to do to take those. I get frustrated when people aren’t willing to take on that task. Sometimes it’s really hard to make movement on those.
Describe your leadership style. When I was 30 years old, I tended to think that it was faster and easier to just do things myself. As I increased in responsibility, I realized that I’m actually short-circuiting my people, and also I’m short-circuiting myself; I’m not getting as much out of it as I could if I developed people and really give them responsibility and show them how to take on more responsibility and do more themselves. As a leader, I always try to make sure people have very clear direction, they know the goal or the result that we’re trying to get to. It’s important that people feel invested in the result.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? I don’t think of myself as a particularly rigid person, but I really think I was more rigid before COVID. Now with our virtual meetings, people are not as rigid, and they’re more flexible. I haven’t seen a difference in the result.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? I don’t think so. Part of the reason I’ve only been with two companies is because I got new roles. Sometimes the new roles were not a promotion; they were a horizontal move for me, but it still fit. It gave me knowledge in something I was interested in.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? I think exposure to kids at the middle school and at the high school level. When I was the plant manager, or when I was working at one plant site, we would always have apprentices, or we would have career day. All of those give us opportunities that kids can see what it means to work in automotive. Creating a dialogue or a game to help them understand what that is is always fun, and they always have a much better understanding.
— Alexa St. John