Hello! My name is TJ McKinney and I am the Head of Human Relations for Tire Manufacturing in the Americas. I’d like to share a story about one of our plant managers that shows how you can develop and drive your own career path at Continental.
Nik Pearce never imagined that an hourly job as an electrical technician would lead him to a successful career in engineering, let alone plant manager of one of Continental’s largest tire facilities in the world.
On an overcast but bright day in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, Nik Pearce stood in the gravel behind a new set of train tracks and gripped a sledgehammer. Next to Nik, his boss Benny Harmse steadied himself for the camera. A few feet away, Mt. Vernon’s mayor smiled wide and held her sledgehammer like a hockey stick. In the middle, then-Illinois Governor Pat Quinn froze with a sledgehammer high above his head, a show of celebration after the foursome drove final spikes into a fresh railroad spur leading to and from Continental’s three-million square-foot tire manufacturing plant.
The picture was taken.
The tracks were laid.
And in the back of his mind, Benny, the plant’s manager, knew this was a noteworthy moment on another important track.
Where it all began…
Nik was born and raised in Southern Illinois. He moved his young family back to his hometown in 1991 to be closer to relatives and become an electrical technician at the plant, an hourly role that required weekend shifts. He had an associate degree, with talent and work ethic. He eventually went back to school to complete a bachelor’s degree in business. Soon after, he transferred to the engineering side of the plant’s operations and began his upward track.
“I noticed Nik when he was in engineering, how organized he was and how well he followed up,” says Benny, who joined the Mt. Vernon Plant in 2009 and quickly became one of Nik’s mentors. “He got to the facts. He was unemotional. He had skin in the game, too. He was in the plant and was from the area and I could tell he wanted to be there a long time.”
Benny, now Continental’s head of tire manufacturing for the Americas Region, was on his own management fast track. It was a priority for him to identify and develop someone who could eventually lead the plant – and lead it well. “My objective was to always find a local successor,” Benny says. “I was looking for someone I could develop and groom, someone who’s local and who has skin in the game and will do what’s right for the company.”
Four promotions and 22 years after he joined the company, Nik was the Mixing Department Manager when he and Benny posed for that photo with the governor in 2013. Six years later, Nik has reached his destination: he officially became Mt. Vernon’s Plant Manager in January of this year.
Benny told Nik that if he wanted to be Plant Manager in Mt. Vernon, he’d be best served to spend two years as production manager at Continental’s tire plant in Romania. The opportunity would offer a different perspective and round out Nik’s experience. Nik accepted without hesitation – a mindset he’s carried with him throughout his career at Continental.
“Any opportunity, I took it,” Nik says. “My advice is don’t let today’s circumstances really block you from taking any open opportunities. I always took advantage of training and opportunities to learn new processes and equipment. Earlier in my career, Continental sent me to Germany for three weeks to learn new equipment. I tried to volunteer for any new process being put in place or new type of equipment, because I wanted to learn the latest and greatest information.”
The Romania move came at an ideal time in Nik’s life. His kids were grown and out of the house. His wife agreed to take on the complete responsibility of tending to the family’s home and property. Suddenly, a hometown guy who hired in as an hourly electrician was about to live and work – and lead people – in an entirely different culture halfway around the world.
Did he envision any of this?
“Absolutely not,” Nik says. “Not me. Never dreamed it. Never had it in my sights. Never saw it coming like that. Whatever position I’ve ever had, I always thought this is the last position I’ll be in, so we have to make it right. I’ve never looked at what’s my next move in three years.”
Which is the same advice he gives now, when it’s his turn to speak to the Mt. Vernon Plant’s new hires during orientation.
“Someone will usually ask how they’d approach moving up, and I tell them do the best you can at the job you have now,” Nik says, echoing the advice Benny gave him long ago. “Don’t focus on positions, titles and money. Do the best you can, and the opportunities will come.”