Peter Chia says that he asked supervisors recently at the new Nokian Tyres production plant in Dayton, Tennessee, what business they're in.
"They said 'The tire business,"' said the plant's operations director. "I said 'Not really. You and I are in the people business. Our team members make tires."'
Chia said he's installing a servant leadership culture at the new $360 million tire manufacturing factory that's slated for an early 2020 startup.
This summer, Finland-based Nokian produced its first test tire at the Dayton plant. Plans are to make thousands more for testing and machine calibration purposes before year's end. Annual capacity at the the company's only American factory will be 4 million tires, with further expansion possible, according to officials.
Chia, who just finished a year at the Dayton job, said it's key that the new plant's leaders understand that it's the team members "who pay my salary."
"They're the top line," he said. "We're at the bottom."
Chia, who has three decades as a manager under his belt at facilities across North America, said that the culture he's preaching at Nokian wasn't what he always practiced.
The Singapore native who immigrated to Canada for college and then to the United States said he learned from "good and bad leaders."
* Work: Operations director at Nokian Tyres in Dayton; three decades of experience as a manager and director in the global automotive industry, including a stint at IAC North America in Dayton.
* Personal: Married; six children, four grandchildren
* Quote: “Be humble, always listen and seek to understand. Over the years I changed, developed and practice those good principles. It really helped me and helped develop team members.”
"I've picked up bad habits," he added, having worked for many years in what he termed the "take no prisoners" auto sector. "That approach was demanding, aggressive, loud, not listening."
But, Chia added, he learned that such actions only get results when people work out of fear.
"It won't help you be successful as an organization," he said.
The Nokian operations director said he took training, read books by Stephen Covey and Dale Carnegie, and learned how to treat people with respect.
"Be humble, always listen and seek to understand," Chia said. "Over the years I changed, developed and practice those good principles. It really helped me and helped develop team members."
Before Chia was named as operations director at Nokian and while the search was on for someone to lead the plant, it was people associated with the city of Dayton who floated his name for the job.
He had worked in Dayton at the former IAC North America plant, which had made interiors for the automotive industry. He later moved to the Pacific Northwest to work for Biamp Systems, a manufacturer of audio-visual products, he said.
"I had a good relationship with the city of Dayton," Chia said, particularly citing Dennis Tumlin, who formerly headed economic development and tourism efforts in the city before taking a post with the state earlier this year.
Tumlin, recently selected as chief customer officer for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development in Nashville, said that when the Nokian job in Dayton was posted, he notified Chia of the opportunity.
He said that one of Chia's strengths is team-building.
"He's really good at assembling a great team," Tumlin said. "He had great relationships with the city and [Rhea] county."
Also, Tumlin said, he and Nokian fit because of their visions related to giving back to the community, citing the company's efforts to help revamp parks, donate bikes to needy children and make other local investments.
Nokian has about 100 employees on board currently. That figure is expected to remain stable until the early 2020 when there's a second wave of hiring.
Chia said the team is key at Nokian because the plant is building a product on which peoples' lives depend.
"There can't be any compromise, no misunderstanding," he said. "Everyone takes pride in what they do."
Chia said that when he came on board, cement was being poured for the foundations and he has seen the steel go up and the production machinery arrive.
Also, Chia oversaw the company sending 40 members of the launch team to Russia, where Nokian has its most modern plant.
"We've got team members who'd never flown on a plane or left the country," he said. "They were nervous going to a strange country."
But after the first week, Chia said, the group felt at home.
"It was an emotional time when everyone had to leave," he said. "The American flag went up ... ."
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.