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Take 5: Q&A with President and CEO Poul Jeppesen, SKF USA Inc.

May 8, 2013
"I always look myself in the mirror at night, 'Did I make a difference today?'" Poul Jeppesen, president and CEO of SKF USA Inc.

From Denmark to the U.S., Poul Jeppesen has worked for SKF AB (IW 1000/445), a Sweden-based fabricated metal products manufacturer, for more than 30 years. Now, he serves as president and CEO of SKF USA Inc.

After delivering a keynote address “Beyond Our Factory Walls” at IndustryWeek’s 2013 Best Plants Conference in Greenville, S.C., during which he described SKF’s sustainable development efforts and called on attendees to own the youth recruiting problem in manufacturing, Jeppesen offered IW insight on his leadership values.

Q: How do you get employees to see the value of sustainability efforts, as opposed to profit and growth-based endeavors?

I think by involving them, by engaging them in the whole process…You know, I don’t like to be told what to do. I like to do it myself. That’s really how simple it is: to give to them, empower them.

Empowerment is one of our values. We have to empower our people. Accept risk and a mistake here and there. But you need to provide them also with the education and the training so they can step up to the plate because some of them are not capable; they have not been allowed to do it for years.

But suddenly, the buy-in, the ownership, is incredible. It is so rewarding to watch. It really is. We still have a long way to go. Don’t take me wrong, we do, but I think initially when we thought about this, like you just said, “How do we engage them?” We just get out of the way and they go.

Q: What is your strongest leadership skill?

People. I believe in people. I always look myself in the mirror at night, “Did I make a difference today?” We have to make a difference all of the time. That’s why I think we are so strong, the people here [at the conference]. If we start to walk the talk, it will happen. But we can’t just sit back, “Well, someone’s going to do it or something.” And, as I have done it, that’s rewarding to me because you get a nice feedback from people that really want to get involved. So I really think it’s about human capital. Hire the best. If not the best, train them, engage them, and you’ll see things change.

Q: What led you to your employee engagement philosophy?

I played semi-professional soccer all of my life. That’s a team sport. No one can win it by itself. And I use that again and again. For instance, we engaged with the racing industry today. Racing, you have a good driver, but if you don’t have a good crew when they come into the pit, you’re not going to win any races. Again, it’s about people, putting them together and letting them have empowerment.

Q: How is leading in the U.S. different than being a leader in your native country, Denmark?

I remember when I came here that the respect for a U.S. manager or a boss, whatever you will, was much, much bigger in the U.S. when I came here 20 years ago, than it was even in the school, the educational system in Denmark. They talk to the teacher as Poul. It’s very, very, very laid back.

Q: How has being from Denmark influenced your leadership style in the U.S.?

Coming from Denmark, a tiny little country, everyone knows each other. We all know who the customers are. There are no new customers we’ve never seen before, which means I need to perform better every day.

That was one thing I reminded myself when I came over here: this country, the size, if we can just provide that service to all customers, we start to grow and grow and grow and we have done that. It’s not been easy and we still have a long way to go and things to improve on, but it’s really, it’s nothing high tech or anything, it’s just doing the right thing. 

Check out IW's complete "Take Five" series, a regular section featuring interviews with top executives.

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