CHARLOTTE, N.C.—It wasn't quite "earn while you learn." Still, for someone who calls himself "an old manufacturing guy," the encounter was not only eye-opening but exciting, to say the least.
What Donald C. Roof, president and CEO of Heafner Tire Group Inc., did was participate in a unique executive exchange program that gave him some hands-on involvement at a couple of Michelin North America Inc. tire plants and the company's Greenville, S.C., corporate headquarters.
In turn, Pete Selleck, executive vice president and COO of Michelin Americas Small Tires, got a taste of how Heafner, one of MAST's biggest customers, operates its vast distribution and retail networks.
Michelin said the objective of its first-ever exchange of this type was to further cement its business relationship with Heafner, while improving understanding between the two companies about what each does and how it's done.
A Michelin spokesman said the company hasn't decided whether to extend similar orientation sessions to other customers, but noted: "We value working closely with all our customers."
For Mr. Roof—who spent a dozen years in industrial manufacturing with Yale International/Spreckels Industries prior to joining Charlotte-based Heafner—it was more than simply visiting tire plants. "Not being from the tire industry, it was an absolutely great basic orientation for me," he said. "I loved getting into the manufacturing arenas."
Before anyone scoffs about it being nothing but a glorified tour, Mr. Roof actually rolled up his sleeves and experienced the business from ground floor up. During last year's third quarter, he spent two days in Michelin's Lexington, S.C., tire assembly plant changing mold presses, loading and running an extruder in the raw materials mixing area, building tires and loading them in the warehouse.
"I cut my hands up and tried not to make too much scrap," he joked. "But I loved being in the factory."
Michelin said he was the first customer ever allowed to spend that kind of time on the factory floor. And he discovered "the stuff they're doing there is pretty remarkable, compared to my old experience in manufacturing. They've been able to really get the involvement of the entire employee group and have done away with a lot of the old departmentalism in manufacturing."
Mr. Roof found that "they've driven a lot of the responsibility right down to the factory-floor level."
He also spent a day in Michelin's Anderson, S.C., semi-process plant, which includes textiles, rubber mixing and extrusions, and a day in the tire maker's corporate offices, where he reviewed pricing, forecasting, sales, marketing and "all related functions" for the company's passenger and light truck tire business.
Meanwhile, in the fourth quarter of 1999, his counterpart at MAST, Mr. Selleck, spent two days in the Southeast becoming oriented to the distribution side of Heafner's business, then traveled to the West Coast to work a couple of days in Heafner-owned Winston Tire retail outlets in California.
"This experience allowed me to see many of the challenges that are being tackled by many different elements of the Heafner team, and the role that Michelin is playing to help them succeed in better serving tire buyers," he said.
The idea for an executive swap grew from a joint business "retreat" held last April among Heafner and MAST senior management groups, shortly before Mr. Roof took over as Heafner's president.
"One of the problems I said I had was that I didn't know the tire industry," he said, "and Pete (Selleck) said Michelin would like to know more about our business."
The exchange "demonstrated an openness on the part of Michelin, relationship-wise, and that has paid off in a number of arenas," Mr. Roof said.
"Because of the relative size of Heafner, with our three big suppliers (Michelin, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Goodyear) it's no longer the old relationship of being a regional distributor. It really is a co-dependency, if we're going to effectively serve the market."
At an upcoming strategy meeting, Heafner officials are to consider continuing the Michelin program with another level of executives.