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Name: Rick Merkel
Date of birth: July 29, 1949
Place of birth: Johnstown, Pa., but grew up in Lakeland, Fla.
Title: Executive vice president and chief operating officer of aluminum wheel maker Enkei America Inc.
Joined Enkei in: July 1998
Education: Bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, master of business administration while a U.S. Navy ROTC instructor from University of Kansas. “There was never any thought about not going to college. My parents simply expected it. They also expected me to attend college out of state, to help me grow up.”
Family: Wife, Brenda, works at SIHO; two grown children, two grandchildren
Hobbies: Reading (Tom Clancy-type fiction and Thomas Friedman-type nonfiction), gardening, golf
Q: What was your first job?
A: In the late 1960s, I helped pour concrete that was used to make bridges, schools and sports arenas.
Q: What main lesson did you learn from that job?
A: It taught me how important listening was. And it also gave me a good appreciation for good, hard work. It was tough work in hot conditions. It wasn’t mowing grass. It certainly was an eye-opener.
Q: What do you like best about your current job?
A: Dealing with people. I like that we’re using a simple but sophisticated technology to make wheels. To work in a privately held Japanese company really is very different from working at a Fortune 500. Before Enkei, I worked for Kaiser Aluminum for 24 years. The attitude to be in the business long-term is different as well.
Q: What main management challenge are you facing right now?
A: We have survived a trying time. A lot of our competitors have left. Worldwide, we probably will have an aluminum wheel shortage for three to five years. Also, we have to work hard to make people want to come and stay at work. Part of the difficulty stems from Enkei being a foundry operation, but we also have to realize that loyalty is bidirectional. In some businesses, management tends to become myopic. We need to create an environment that fosters trust, growth and the commonness of values and expectations.
Q: Where did you gain leadership experience?
A: I first gained leadership experience as a naval officer. I served as a surface warfare officer on destroyers in San Diego and the South China Sea. We did combat patrols and got shot at. To be a good leader, I followed my dad’s advice: You better listen to the people that you work with and who work for you. In my corporate career, I learned that your power doesn’t come from the people above you, but from meeting the needs of the people whom you supervise. If you take care of your people, the numbers always take care of themselves.
Q: What are some of the biggest leadership lessons you’ve learned?
A: You always need to consider others’ points of view. Consensus decisions are preferable to top-down directives. Also, take the time to think about whatever problem you’re facing. Be patient. It’s better to make the right decision slowly than to make the wrong decision quickly. Also, give your people the proper education and tools to do their jobs and communicate expectations clearly.
Q: How have you changed as a leader? What do you know now that you wish you had known earlier in your leadership career?
A: I wish early on I had learned to keep my mouth shut and ears open. When you’re young, you don’t listen as much as you should. I also wish I had realized sooner that being in a bad situation is helpful because you learn from mistakes — your own and those of others.
Q: What’s the No. 1 thing you expect from your employees?
A: To be honest with me and to bring solutions — not just a problem. I don’t like surprises, so if there’s a problem, speak up.
Q: What do your employees absolutely have to avoid?
A: Beyond stealing and fighting, don’t badmouth or backstab the people you work with or for. Be a team player.
Q: What advice can you give people who are just now entering the workforce?
A: Be yourself. Don’t put on airs. Continue your education. If you’re not learning every day, you’re not growing. And if you initially don’t like your job, stick with it and be patient. It’s not all going to be rosy, but keep a positive attitude, an open mind and don’t be afraid of change.
Every other Sunday, The Republic will present short Q&As with local leaders eager to share the lessons they’ve learned. If you have a suggestion for someone to be profiled, please contact finance editor Boris Ladwig at 379-5712 or email@example.com.
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