INTERVIEW | Nine questions with Bridgestone SA's Jacques Fourie
The past 12 months haven’t been easy for most South African citizens and enterprises. We caught up with the head of tyre manufacturer Bridgestone, about its response to the crisis, its road map for the journey ahead and its steps towards upskilling staff.
Give our readers a brief background of your career and time at the helm of Bridgestone?
First, I am a husband, and a father to three daughters. I have been very blessed to have had many career opportunities and great mentors along the way to guide the quality of my thinking, coach my behaviour and influence my impact as a leader over the years. I had my first job as a storeroom packer at the age of 14, but my career started many years later as an articled clerk at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). I then joined Cummins Engine Company where I held several roles in finance, operations, sales and marketing leadership in various parts of the world. I worked and lived in Ghana, the US, Mexico and Canada, as well as here in SA for Cummins. It truly was a great training ground for me that produced many great career opportunities, growth and development. All these experiences have made me the leader I am today, focusing on building strong diverse teams to achieve extraordinary results and shareholder value.
I joined Bridgestone Southern Africa in July 2019 as CEO, after 15 years at Cummins. Since joining Bridgestone, we have focused on restoring our global market leadership position back here in SA through streamlining our operations, including sales and manufacturing, establishing a strong culture, driven by a diverse workforce of motivated and compassionate people led by a focused, talented and caring leadership team.
How has Covid-19 affected Bridgestone’s SA operations?
Covid-19 has affected every aspect of the South African economy, industry and citizens in many ways. Going into level 5 Lockdown our priorities were crystal clear and that allowed us to stay focused and navigate the storm for our business, customers and employees. The safety, health and security of our more than 2,000 direct and over 3,200 indirect employees is, was and will always be our number one priority. Many of our employees easily adapted to working from home until this day but in our plants and retail environments we had to implement very strict Covid-19 protocols to ensure the health of our employees, resulting in an infection rate of less than 15% of our employees over the entire period. Regrettably, we experienced Covid-19-related fatalities of colleagues.
Making sure we support and protect our customers and channel partners through various support packages and offerings was a core focus. We know without our loyal customers we don’t have a business. We operated in some segments of our business as an essential services provider to police, healthcare facilities and food transporters to make sure basic services and needs continued.
Protecting the company by managing our cost and cash flow allowed us to continue operations. Thousands of employees, channel partners and suppliers were counting on us to make sure Bridgestone continues operations to keep their business and families protected during and post Covid-19. And last, but certainly not least, was preparing for the “new normal” that will follow the pandemic and reopening of the economy, basically life after the past 12 months and into the foreseeable future. We are proud of the way we managed the pandemic, so our company emerged stronger from this crisis and was able to support all our employees without any layoffs in any parts of our business due to Covid-19 implications, despite severe impacts on the industry.
The recent civil unrest: what were the effects on the company?
Bridgestone’s business, its customers and employees have been heavily affected by the riots, the impact on the economy, as well as the emotional impact on citizens. Staying true to our priorities we proactively closed all our operations to keep our employees safe and reopened in stages across the country, as things calmed. In addition to closing our facilities, we provided our employees in KZN with essentials, as they were unable to access supermarkets and pharmacies.
One of our mega warehouse facilities in Cato Ridge was looted and thousands of products were lost that were meant to support consumers and OEM manufacturing in KZN. The closure of Transnet, including Transnet Port Terminals (TPT), and the declaration of a Force Majeure Event on July 26, 2021, resulted in an immediate shortage of raw material, forcing us to close our plant for a week. This was a challenge for the company and devastating to employee morale after the impact of riots and Covid-19 over the past few months. We have since resumed operations and focused on catching up production to make sure the automotive industry, OEM’s and channel partners do not suffer further production losses due to component shortages.
In the wake of all this gloom, what does the road to recovery and renewed growth look like for your company?
We remain laser focused on implementing and driving our company strategy to become mobility pioneers. Our core focus is driving operational effectiveness, offering world class sustainable products designed to the local market and consumers' needs, developing our market-leading retail network and expanding our solutions business. Supporting, caring and developing our employees remains central to everything we do.
We recently launched a customised leadership development programme with the Gordon Institute of Business (Gibs) to build and enhance leadership capability of 60 leaders, as we believe in driving our strategy through a network of leaders.
New technologies: what can SA consumers look forward to from Bridgestone in the months to come?
Maybe before I touch on SA, let me highlight Bridgestone’s evolution in terms of how we are applying technology in the services and solutions we provide. We recently announced how we are supporting safety and efficiency at the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. Bridgestone created social and customer value through a variety of solutions-based tyre technologies and innovations. As the official tyre of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, we aimed to help keep the official IOC and IPC fleets in motion by providing high-performing tyres and tyre services for about 3,000 vehicles, including cars, competition support vehicles, unique concept vehicles that help to move staff, and more.
Locally, recent investment in our Brits plant is substantial, with close to R700m being spent over the last three years on new equipment (mostly to cater for the automotive OE market) to be fully commissioned by the end of this year. Over the next two years, investment will shift to our retail network, expanding and rolling out our new Supa Quick corporate identity and rapidly expanding our service and solutions offering through organic and even some exciting mergers and acquisition activity. We want to become far more active in the mobility solutions space, as was shown by our acquisition of Tom Tom Telematics. We are transitioning from being simply a tyre company. Instead, we are finding new and exciting ways of conducting traditional business, with tyres now regarded as a service offering, rather than an outright purchase in some market segments. And last but by no means least, we are becoming more headstrong in our approach to retail. We believe that strength in the franchise retail chain fortifies our core, which is in line with our ultimate goal to be recognised as the undisputable market leader. In addition to our technology investment at the plant, we streamlined the business structure while implementing multidisciplinary teams that proved to be more efficient, transparent and high-performing. As a result, wastage is down, while quality and profitability are up. Coming out of a difficult 2020, our business has already seen an increase in production volumes and market share growth. This growth and improvement in efficiencies allows us to continuously produce safer, higher performing tyres for a wider range of local and export markets.
What is Bridgestone SA doing to promote the important agenda of transformation and economic inclusivity?
In 2021, we were incredibly proud to become the first tyre company to achieve accreditation as a Level 3 B-BBEE contributor. Promoting diversity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace, and the upliftment of people, is more than just about gender and racial makeup. It is also about embracing a diversity of backgrounds, views, experience, culture, and thoughts. Over the past year, we have made huge strides in building a highly skilled, diverse leadership team. In our executive committee (Exco) we already have 50% female representation and more than 30% in our senior management group. Last year, we were very proud to appoint the first female CFO and sales directors in the history of our company, taking us from strength to strength.
In terms of youth development and upskilling, how does Bridgestone invest in human capital?
There are many opportunities to accelerate change and one of the areas of greatest potential for long-term transformation is the YES4Youth Graduate Programme, the government’s successful employment experience programme. We initiated our participation in the public sector-run YES4Youth Development Programme in November 2019, placing 38 youth with degrees and diplomas in a variety of functions, such as sales, information technology, finance, procurement, and engineering. This year, we inducted a second wave of 70 graduates, and we enhanced the programme with a more structured framework, robust selection criteria, additional training, and real work for them to do, in the head office, retail as well as the manufacturing space.
In addition to YES4Youth, we have more than 20 youth in our production technology learnership. This is a 12-month programme that helps us build a pipeline of operators in manufacturing. An additional 29 are in the apprenticeship programme that is aligned to different trades and 10 are in the tyre repairs and maintenance learnership.
We also run a team leader learnership in manufacturing, which houses about nine trainees. Overall, our business is giving experience to almost 140 young people, improving their future employability and contributing towards the reduction of the high unemployment rate in SA. In the year to date, we have absorbed 36 trainees from our various programmes into permanent positions.
The pandemic expedited the shift to e-commerce. Lots of automakers, for example, are pushing concepts of complete online sales. Would you say the tyre industry has the potential to be “digitised” to such a degree?
The multifaceted digitisation journey we have embarked on touches across our business and manufacturing processes, as well as customer service. Indeed, customers’ rapidly evolving shopping experience is increasingly digitised through smart mobile technology, and becoming deeply personalised through AI, machine learning and analytics. The in-store shopping experience in the retail tyre market remains a preferred channel for customers, but this will continue to be enhanced by digital channels, apps and services.
What will your legacy be at Bridgestone?
I am humbled at the opportunity to lead this world-class organisation during this phase of SA’s revival. Part of what we need as an industry, and indeed as a country is sound leadership. I have a special interest in leadership development, and I am grateful to have space and scope to do that within Bridgestone. My leadership purpose is to develop leaders, through role modelling the creation of authentic teams by developing individuals to realise their true potential and value.
Yes, my job at Bridgestone is to deliver sustainable and responsible shareholder value, but my legacy will be the leadership culture transformation that I firmly believe is our competitive advantage as a company right now. We have attracted some of the best South African talent the local market had to offer and developing them into an industry best high-performance unit is at the centre of my objectives. In the end, each of my team members must feel that they have grown in their leadership journey and are able to acknowledge the team with which they operate as one of the best teams they have partnered with.