Diversity, inclusion and new face of business, a focus for BRIDGESTONE SA
A year has passed since we were introduced to the new CEO of Bridgestone South Africa, Jacques Fourie. At the time, Bridgestone SA and SA Taxi had just signed a historic agreement that would see them working closely together in a bid to boost road safety and create safer travel for thousands of South African commuters who rely on the taxi industry to get to work. Since then, the company has undergone a transformation process in order to streamline production, improve market share and most of all, nurture and protect its valuable employees.
All this, in the face of a unprecedented global pandemic that has brought the economy to its knees. In an exclusive virtual session – fast becoming the ‘new normal’ for businesses across all industry segments – SA TREADS caught up with Fourie to get the lowdown.
Jacques, talk us through your 12-month tenure as CEO of Bridgestone SA.
The past few months have been a transformational journey for our business. We began by assessing the plan already in place.
Was this the right business strategy for the company, and if so, did the business have the right structures in place to enable the strategy? Our findings were, that while the strategy was sound, we needed to change our tactics in order to achieve it and implement it.
This required several changes to be made in order to bring focus to jobs, sales, operations and retail. In short, this exercise brought clear focus on what success looks like, as we asked those all important questions: what does customer service in that context look like; who are our competitors and how do we compete in the market?
Next, we focused on company culture, and differentiating sub-culture for each business division. Clearly, the retail segment requires a different sub-culture to the commercial business, and that of the Brits plant.
Once structures were finalised, we were compelled to look at the workforce. In other words, did we have the appropriate players for these structures to realise the strategy? Which was when we embarked on a recruitment process that involved hiring people from outside the business together with promoting people with talent from within the ranks.
Our newly appointed CFO, Prinisha Khoosal, serves as a sterling example of the company’s dedicated efforts to create diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Currently, 31% of our employees are female, with 50% race diversity. We have amassed a world-class, young leadership team here at Bridgestone, (average age is 40), which leads me to believe that we are on the right track, in terms of achieving our objectives in this regard. The vast majority of transformational work is now behind us. The strategy is clear and fully implemented and the vast majority of company personnel are familiar with it.
Is the business strategy reaping rewards?
I am happy to say that it is. We have gained back three points in the low-rim diameter business as well as pleasing growth in the high-rim diameter category. Best of all, we gained three points in the TBR segment, in only one month, alongside retaining positive market share in the OTR space, where we are particularly dominant.
Of course, the past few months required making some tough decisions too, not least of which, was the proposal to close our bias ply plant in Port Elizabeth. Considered a Legacy Plant, this was devastating for Bridgestone. We considered converting the plant to a radial plant but in the current economic context, we could not justify the investment.
The Nelson Mandela Bay Area is particularly affected by unemployment, especially manufacturing – a sad indictment of the times.
How many people are employed by the Port Elizabeth plant and how was the news received?
The PE factory employs 252 people, some of whom will be taking up vacancies elsewhere in the company. For those willing to relocate, the company will be covering their relocation fees. That said, most employees there are close to retirement. They have lived in Port Elizabeth most of their lives and they are unlikely to leave their homes to take up a work opportunity for a few years. For them, the company is proposing retrenchment packages once the consultation process is concluded.
As for the latter part of your question, suffice to say that this was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my career. Seeing grown men and women sob, utterly distressed at the news, was very painful for me. As a company, in the absence of a better alternative, the least we can do is to execute this agonising task of dismantling the plant and workforce, with the greatest dignity and respect.
What kind of vacancies are available to them elsewhere in the country?
Limited opportunities are available in the Brits plant, retail network and shared service functions. The past year has also seen us exiting from a small number of equity shops as well as from the OTR retreading market (now handled by Rema Tip Top on our behalf).
Unfortunately, all of these tough and painful changes were part of a clear strategy to repurpose and refocus the business to be the market leader.
Speaking of the Brits plant, is there investment being made?
Recent investment in our Brits plant is substantial, with close on R700 million being spent over the last three years on new equipment, (mostly to cater for the OE market), to be fully commissioned by the end of this year. Over the next two years, investment will shift to our retail network. Already, 45 new vehicles have been ordered, in a bid to upgrade customer service.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business?
We were quick to react to the public health crisis and do the right thing by sending our employees home, (except for those working in our plant), a week before the President announced the lockdown. The arrival of COVID-19 led us to come up with three clear objectives, and later, a fourth one, chiefly, the health and safety of our employees and how to stand by them and support them at this critical point.
Second, we looked at our customers and franchise partners, subsequently coming up with a suite of packages (as not all businesses are the same), that could potentially help them to weather the crisis.
Tell us more about these packages.
The assistance offered varied, based on their specific needs. Some businesses have strong balance sheets, and therefore require different types of relief programmes than those with cash flow issues. The assistance provided ranged from discounts and settlement programmes to consignment stock programmes and delayed payment terms. This dedicated approach made all the difference.
What was your third and fourth objective?
The third objective centered around how we protect our business past COVID-19. We employ 2 200 people, all with dependants. At least another 10 000 people live off this business as contractors, service providers and the like. It is vitally important that Bridgestone survives! Fourth, as we navigated the lockdown, the focus shifted to: how do we get back to work and what does that look like?
Even now, at level 2, most of our employees have returned to the office on a rotational basis at 50% capacity. Our flexible working arrangements are still available to our employees because we recognise the importance of work-life integration and flexibility.
We have successfully transformed the company into a virtual space and in doing so, discovered that productivity went up, not down. The same can be said for performance and commitment to their various jobs, which also rose substantially. We also enabled our leaders and managers to lead virtually through development workshops in partnership with Dale Carniage.
All our fears and misgivings around working from home have been dispelled. Our employees shone when the company needed them the most! COVID-19 has taught us that what we thought was impossible, is possible. Who would have thought that multi-billion Rand companies can be run from home? And yet, they are. We are no longer required to fly in an aeroplane three times a week to attend meetings. All our collaborations are made possible with the click of a link via Microsoft Teams.
Suffice to say, the pandemic will change the way we work, live, educate and worship, for good. These unintended changes are a key talking point at every EXCO meeting across all industries at this time. In the coming weeks, we will begin examining the concept of returning to the workplace and what that will look like, but we will not be rushing back.
Did you identify any negatives to this new working environment?
A deep unintended consequence has become the extended working hours our people are putting in, with some now averaging a nine-hour day. Helping them to balance their time between work, family and leisure is the next wave of the challenge.
Plus, before COVID-19, Bridgestone was very much an in-person company, in the way of customer visits, national council meetings and the like. We were forced to make a transformational shift by transitioning to virtual, which for some, was a challenge, but now that we have, we are having focused, constructive conversations. We have even introduced team virtual socials, to keep us connected.
Can the consumer feel safe when coming into one of your Supa Quick retail stores?
Very much so. All baseline COVID-19 regulations have been implemented and are strictly being adhered to. This was evident by a mystery shopper exercise we recently conducted where our ‘shoppers’ went from store to store to check and observe. And our service offering has expanded to include sending someone to fetch the car should they not wish to be exposed to any risk, and the option of staying in their car and driving it onto the ramp themselves. We are taking every precaution, with vehicles being thoroughly sanitised after service.
Interestingly, COVID-19 has also brought about other unintended changes. For example, we are seeing a rise in battery sales, now that vehicles are not running every day. There also seems to be growing awareness around vehicle maintenance, such as wiper blades, brakes and shocks. It’s almost as if the current awareness around health is simultaneously transferring to vehicle safety.
We first met at the launch of Bridgestone’s historic partnership with SA Taxi. How is the partnership working out so far?
Our relationship is growing, with stores located on major routes or close to the taxi ranks, reporting a rise in business. Bridgestone wants to be known as a company that is deeply involved in society and in that context, the taxi tyre deal is a great way for us to translate our product and technology to the man on the street.
What is your vision for Bridgestone SA over the next five years?
Bridgestone is aiming to become even more involved in the broader South African economy, with major focus on corporate responsibility that spreads to the various communities. We want to be known as a company that represents the southern African region in terms of diversity and inclusion, a company where my own daughters and sons could be proud to work at one day.
We aim to give our employees a great employee experience with development and growth opportunities in an environment that allows them to innovate and bring their full selves with a strong sense of belonging. I think I can safely say that we are pioneering in this area, in the hopes that our competitors will benefit from the example we are setting and that this will ultimately translate into us pulling more talent into the industry.
This would beneficial for all. We also want to become far more active in the mobility solutions space, as was shown by our recent 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. And last but by no means least, we are becoming more headstrong in our approach to retail. We believe that strength in the retail chain strengthens our core, which is in line with our ultimate goal – to be recognised as the undisputable market leader.