Jennifer Johnson, 44
CEO, Kendrick Plastics
Location: Grand Rapids, Mich.
Education: B.S., mechanical engineering, and MBA, University of Michigan
What drew you to the auto industry? It was a pretty natural choice. I grew up in the Detroit area and came from a family of engineers. My dad was an engineer at Ford for over 30 years. I was the youngest of five kids, and every single one of them became engineers and worked initially in the auto industry.
First automotive job: Test lab technician and co-op student at Johnson Controls in 1994. I ran [Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards] tests for automotive seating.
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Big break: When I chose to leave a 20-year career — very traditional, rewarding career — at Johnson Controls. I chose to leave and try an entrepreneurial route with a smaller business. By doing that, I picked up a lot of different skills that I wouldn’t have picked up working at a larger corporation. Those skills helped me to be more confident and be able to seek out the curiosity and ambitions that I had. I don’t believe I’d be in the position I’m in today if I wouldn’t have made that change and went for an entrepreneurial experience.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? When COVID hit our industry and our country, Kendrick Plastics was only 2½ months old. I take a great deal of personal responsibility in the safety of my employees. There are close to 400 employees here. In the beginning weeks of the pandemic, when the government and public health officials weren’t really sure exactly what was happening, those were some very trying days for people, leaders that were responsible for people, and myself included. I felt a moral responsibility to keep employees as safe as I could, with not a lot of resources or guidance at the time. It was an economic meltdown as well in the industry with production pausing.
You’ve been in the industry 26 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? The industry is more curious than it used to be. It’s in a major transformation. You see new entrants — whether that’s in services or technologies. There’s more variety and diversity in the industry in general, and that’s going to make the products and vehicles better suited for the marketplace as the generations change. I also think the work force is changing. I feel much more welcome in the industry now than I ever did — my last several years compared to my first 15 years, for sure. I think the industry is absolutely moving in the right direction.
What work achievement are you most proud of? Having the opportunity to lead Kendrick Plastics, which is a new Tier 1 interiors supplier to the market, is probably the one I’m most excited about. It’s the most responsibility I’ve ever had, and I get the opportunity to broadly be responsible for the performance of the business as well as all of our employees and our customers’ satisfaction. I’m pretty proud to have arrived to this point and to have been given the opportunity to build the company.
What do you struggle with? The best part about my life is also probably the biggest struggle. I live a very full life. I have a very full personal life. I’m in a long-term marriage, and we have three beautiful daughters that are everything to us. My husband and I both have very fulfilling careers, and we both only have 24 hours in a day like everybody else. We’ve learned to become extremely organized. It’s sometimes painful to have to be as strict and organized, but it’s always worth it in the end because I find great fulfillment in my personal life, first and foremost, and as much fulfillment in my career as well. It’s overwhelming sometimes, so we just take it day by day. I really wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s also the thing that makes life hard. Work is just a component of who I am. It’s a big component, but it’s just one component.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? I killed some time thinking that I really couldn’t be me in the workplace and that the workplace wouldn’t really accept me. They knew a lot of me, but they didn’t know all of me because I didn’t know for sure if it was welcome. I was in my own way a little bit on that, and I let the environment influence me. So if I would change anything, I would look back to some of those years and just be authentically me in the workplace earlier than I really made that shift. But other than that, absolutely no regrets.
If there were 25 hours in a day, how would you spend your extra hour? I would read more Mary Poppins books to my 9-year-old.
— Audrey LaForest