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When Jim Lyons was in school as a teenager, he sat next to a slightly older student who was working part time in a Cummins Inc. factory. The industrial smell oozing from his fellow classmate was enough to convince Lyons that he would never work in manufacturing or for Cummins — or so he thought.
Lyons retired Aug. 1 — from Cummins. He spent most of his 40 years with the company in manufacturing.
He said he learned much later that the smell on that fellow student many years ago was Viscor, a calibration fluid designed to emulate the physical properties of diesel fuel. Viscor is used in testing engine
In his years with the company, Lyons played a critical role in the turnaround of the company’s turbocharger unit, the centralization of the fuel systems business in Columbus, union negotiations and the relaunch of the MidRange Engine Plant near Walesboro. His career was an amazing one for a “poor boy born in the hills of Kentucky,” Lyons said.
Born Sept. 24, 1951, in northeastern Kentucky, Lyons and his parents moved to Ohio and in the mid-1950s to Columbus, where his father, Jim Lyons Sr., worked as manager of Colliers shoe store on Washington Street. His mother, Lorraine, worked at the J.C. Penney store next to the shoe store.
His dad soon got hired at Cummins, though, and the company became somewhat of a family affair: His father worked for Cummins for 30 years; his brother, Joe, for 37; and an uncle worked for Cummins as well. Combined, Lyons said, the family has about 150 years’ worth of service for Cummins.
His long career was punctuated by painful memories, too. He was shaken by devastation caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999 when he worked for Cummins in Rocky Mount, N.C., and initially more than 100 employees were missing. A fatal industrial accident at that plant a year earlier still haunts him.
Throughout his career, Lyons has had a significant impact on Cummins — and Columbus.
In the late 1980s, as Cummins was considering to manufacture its B-series engine in Alabama, Mexico and Brazil, a team that included Jim Lyons proposed another option: To repurpose the Walesboro components plant, which had sat idle for several years.
Some of Cummins’ senior leaders and Chrysler reacted with skepticism. The company’s track record in manufacturing in southern Indiana had been less than stellar.
But some creative approaches, including a special labor agreement with lots of flexibility and a team-based work system, allowed Lyons and his boss, Joe Loughrey, to convince the company’s senior leaders of the proposal.
Production ramped up quickly to exceed 150,000 units per year. The plant built its 1 millionth Ram engine in 2003 and its 2 millionth last year.
That idea ultimately resulted in more than 600 jobs at the Walesboro plant.
“That has been something special for 20 years,” Lyons said.
Other highlights in Lyons’ career include turning around the turbo technologies group, which he led for five years in the last decade, he said.
“I really did not want that job,” Lyons said with a laugh.
The business was a mess, he said, but achieving profitability and improving the unit’s reputation among customers was very gratifying.
‘A heart for people’
Former colleagues said Lyons was well-liked and respected for his empathy, decision-making skills, loyalty to Cummins and its employees and for his dedication to mentoring.
Former Cummins President Joe Loughrey said that he got to know both Lyons and his father and could see in both that the most important thing for them was family, and that they considered Cummins to be part of their family.
After his stints at the midrange plant and in Rocky Mount, N.C., Loughrey said he called Lyons into his office one Sunday over Christmas break and told him that he would like him to run the troubled Holset turbocharger division. It would be a difficult assignment with lots of travel and would be a hardship for Lyons and his family.
Loughrey said the Holset division had problems with production, customers and suppliers — all areas in which Lyons had some expertise.
Lyons accepted the assignment despite the division’s tough situation and the challenges to his personal life, and, Loughrey said, “did a great job.”
Jeff Caldwell, general manager of the pickup and van business, said Lyons was a “results-driven individual with a heart for people.”
That attitude helped in both the good times and the difficult, Caldwell said.
As Cummins was working on moving a midrange engine line into the vacant Walesboro engine plant (now known as Columbus MidRange Engine Plant) in the early 1990s, Caldwell said Lyons often sat at his desk late in the evening thinking about the company’s options and drawing sketches on graph paper.
Lyons would ask anyone who would stop in his office about what they thought of this idea or that. Lyons really personified the team approach to solving problems, Caldwell said.
Lyons said that his approach to teamwork developed throughout his career at Cummins because a lot of people helped him make the right decisions — and prevented him from making mistakes.
“I really do believe in team play,” he said.
Lisa Yoder, vice president of global supply chain and manufacturing, said that while Lyons had an enormous impact on many parts of the company, she also will remember him for his impact on people.
Yoder said that when she worked for Lyons in the mid-1990s as a young engineer, he promoted her to a leadership role, in which she was responsible for manufacturing operations of a component in the fuel systems organization. Yoder said that at the time it was uncommon for young female engineers to oversee a group of manufacturing employees who were mostly male and had worked at the company much longer than she had.
“For Jim it was a little bit of a risk to put me in the role,” Yoder said.
The new role proved challenging, she said, but it also helped her improve her skills, especially in managing people.
Yoder said Cummins employees also could count on Lyons for his calm in difficult situations.
‘Major happy ending’
One crisis Lyons remembers particularly well occurred in September 1999, when he worked in Rocky Mount, N.C., and Hurricane Floyd devastated the area. The drive to work that day took 90 minutes, or 70 minutes longer than normal, Lyons said, because he had to take the back roads. More than 100 people working at the plant could not be reached initially. Many of the employees lost everything, Lyons said.
The plant’s employees got together and worked to find out where the employees were and how they were doing, how to get the plant back up and running and how they could help the community.
All of the missing employees eventually were found, some in shelters, and the company put them up in hotels, Lyons said.
“That one had a major happy ending,” he said. “I felt very, very good to be part of it.”
He also said that the company leadership’s reaction at the time reinforced for him that he was working for the right company. Lyons said the leaders never questioned anything the plant’s employees did to help their co-workers or the community — except to ask, “Are we doing enough?”
Lyons said that early in his career he wanted to design consumer products, such as radios and humidifiers, and that although he took the long way around to work at Cummins, he feels fortunate to have had a career in manufacturing.
“Had a whole bunch of fun along the way,” he said.
Lyons said that in retirement, he may take some labor law classes to become an arbitrator — but he definitely intends to spend more time with the five grandchildren.
What: Retired chief manufacturing officer for Cummins Inc.
Service: 40 years; hired 1973; retired Aug. 1
Previous positions at Cummins:
President of turbo technologies
Oversaw midrange manufacturing at Columbus MidRange Engine Plant
Oversaw heavy-duty manufacturing worldwide
General manager of the Consolidated Diesel Company (now known as the Rocky Mount Engine Plant)
Led the fuel systems operations
Joined Cummins as an associate manufacturing engineer
Family: Wife, Marcie; two daughters; five grandchildren
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