Fanatical for Ford
Coming into Africa to head-up the local division of one of the world’s greatest brands can be a daunting task, but Jeff Nemeth is not a man who shies from a challenge. GAVIN MYERS got the story of this CEO par excellence.
Raised in a small town in Indiana, America, Jeff Nemeth, CEO of Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa, hadn’t set foot on the African continent until he showed up for work at Ford SA in January 2010. “I never knew a thing about Africa or South Africa,” says Nemeth matter-of-factly. “The basic impression was that it would be a real challenge once I got here,” he continues.
Nemeth, who started with Ford Motor Company in 1995, has had a colourful career with the company since. Starting in parts and service, very much on the customer satisfaction side of things, Nemeth soon moved to Ford Credit where he was responsible for pricing. From there, he was sent to Taiwan on his first expatriate assignment – as CFO of Ford’s joint venture in the country.
Nemeth, you see, holds an undergraduate business degree, with an engineering concentration (meaning he studied both disciplines to qualify in either), as well as an MBA in finance.
From Taiwan, Nemeth went back to America for product development on some of Ford’s programmes, one of which was Edge – the shared-technology programme with Mazda. “While working on Edge, I was asked to do a three-year ‘on-loan’ assignment from Ford to Mazda in Hiroshima, Japan, which I did as director of corporate strategy. From there I went back to Taiwan as MD and then to South Africa,” Nemeth tells.
He also worked at General Motors for 10 years prior to joining Ford. “When I graduated I went straight into the auto industry,” he says. “But what attracted me to Ford, specifically, was the iconic status of the company.
“It is considered one of the best employers in America. So, with my passion for vehicles, the passion they have for excellence is something I aspired to,” he continues.
Nemeth isn’t kidding, either. Yes, Ford operates according to its Four Strategic Pillars: Quality, Green, Safe and Smart. But, what Nemeth has achieved so-far at Ford SA speaks volumes about the man …
Firstly, he has been able to turn Ford SA into one of the best producers within the Ford system in terms of quality. “When I came to South Africa there were so many people saying stuff like ‘Ford SA is so slack’. With the old Ranger we wanted to up our game with quality, and we’ve become one of the benchmarks for Ford Motor Company around the world – the global vice-president of quality came here a few months ago because our quality numbers were getting better and better. He just had to see what we were doing!” Nemeth laughs.
“But quality is just the result,” he’s quick to point out. “What it really is, is engaging the people, and I’m most proud of what the workers in Ford Silverton (in Pretoria) and Struandale (the engine plant in Port Elizabeth) have done in empowering themselves and forming their workgroups inside the plant.”
And, yes, Nemeth goes so far as to take time out of his day to personally call the customers and resolve their issues.
The proof is certainly in the pudding; as, while this year the country’s automotive industry grew in the region of 18% over 2010, Ford SA has recorded growth of 34%.
“My whole life, the best way to get me to do something was to say it couldn’t be done – I’d then set my sights on getting it done, and that’s the way it has been with South Africa,” says Nemeth. “It’s not been easy, but I can’t remember ever being so proud of a team coming together and delivering something – as I am about the team here in SA,” Nemeth smiles.
It seems the “challenges” he was told South Africa would toss at him were nothing more than fuel for his fire.