Laura Putre
Navistar's Rod Spencer speaking at the San Antonio plant's grand opening in April.

‘It’s Your Plant; It’s Your Responsibililty’

Aug. 29, 2022
In this segment of Profiles in Leadership, Navistar’s San Antonio plant director talks about the grassroots (and virtual) effort it to build and staff a 970,000-square-foot truck plant.

Rod Spencer’s quarter-century manufacturing career has been a steady climb of increasing responsibility, so it’s tough to throw him a plant-related challenge that he hasn’t encountered. But in 2020, fresh opportunity landed his way: Relocate to San Antonio, Texas, to supervise construction of a Navistar electric and diesel truck plant—the first new heavy-duty truck plant in the U.S. in 30 years. Spencer dove in hardhat-first, with the help of a large supporting team, some of it virtual. He and the leadership team also set about hiring and training a 600-person workforce and put processes in place during a pandemic and supply-chain nightmares. The plant opened on time and on budget in early 2022, and is now producing about 50 Class 6-8 diesel trucks per day, with electric trucks expected to hit the line next year. In an interview with IndustryWeek, Spencer, whose official title is San Antonio plant director, shared an insiders’ scoop on supervising the $250 million plant from shovel in the ground to finished trucks rolling off the line.

IndustryWeek: Tell me about your career up until now.

Rod Spencer: I've always been a director. I've been in operations management, production management, materials management, supply chain logistics. I spent several years in Seattle at midsize and startups. In 2000 sometime, I went to work for Paccar. I actually had multiple roles with Paccar in Washington State. In 2017, I went to Chillicothe, Ohio, to manage their plant there. So prior to that, I had managed the Renton [Washington] plant for a while. I was in Ohio for three years, managing the Chillicothe plant, and then this opportunity came up to start a new truck plant. I thought that was an opportunity worth pursuing.

How involved were you in the planning of the San Antonio plant? Was this a stretch from your previous roles?

It’s a different flavor of what I've done before. I certainly had never been as involved with construction management and construction scheduling. In staffing, having to create training programs, having to create a staffing ramp and how you're going to recruit those people, and creating the onboarding programs—that all fits into my past skill sets and past experiences, just probably on a larger scale. But to start with a blank sheet of paper to hire 600 people that have never built trucks? It’s a competitive job market in a community that doesn’t even know what Navistar is—so there’s certainly aspects that were different than what I've seen before. But in the end, it's project management—planning, putting together the project plan and executing it.

What was your hiring strategy?

Our strategy was to get our name out there. Our trucks are branded International, but it's a Navistar plant. So how do you tie those two together and get that name out in the community? We worked with a third-party marketing firm that's done a lot of work for Navistar in the past. We created a micro-website that people could go to; it would take them right to our application page. We created videos that were San Antonio-specific to put on that page. We created flip cards that we could pass out everywhere and try to get our name out there as much as possible—guerilla marketing. Stephanie Gómez [Navistar communications coordinator/events planner] and a couple other folks in the HR group did a lot of local events. Not just hiring events, and not just job fairs. I went to one that was a trunk-or-treat Halloween thing, during COVID, so cars could drive into the lot and different businesses would give the kids candy. While one person was giving the kids candy, Stephanie was handing out our information to the driver or the passenger, saying, “Hey, we're hiring at Navistar.” So just a lot of local campaigning. About 70% of our hires, when we asked them how they heard about us, it was word of mouth. So the community network in San Antonio and particularly in the south part of the city is pretty strong.

When you came on board, what stage was the plant at? Were you there from the beginning?

No, I came on in October 2020. The plant was designed, the money was approved, the construction company was selected, the manufacturing layout was signed off on. I came in after most of the design phase was complete. Right as we were getting ready to put spades in the ground and turn dirt.

Can you talk a little bit about what your role was in getting the plant up and running?

My boss is a gentleman named Mark Hernandez (Navistar executive vice president of manufacturing and logistics). He has a philosophy of four walls, which means that basically anything that happens inside the four walls—the truck factory—is the plant director’s responsibility. So from day one, Mark basically said, “It's your plant; it's your responsibility.” But you're also the one that he keeps driving to make sure we got things done and made the right decisions and kept on progress. But there was a large project group; there was a program manager involved in making sure we kept on schedule and on track, not just me.

What were some of the problems you saw during the construction phase?

It was a very, very wet year in San Antonio, last year, historically, a high number of rain days. That causes construction delay and potentially cost issues. So you're always balancing those. But in a lot of ways, that's not much different than running a truck plant, right? You never come in and have everything perfect. You've always got to kind of adjust day-to-day. That was the reality of the construction schedule, too. Managing resequencing operations, deciding what you could do to keep cost impacts down, that was a daily thing. And then the other piece was, “We've got 550 people here who have never built trucks before.” So outside of the construction piece, the other piece is, “What's your HR policy? What’s your handbook look like? What's your hiring strategy look like? What's your org chart gonna look like? How are you onboarding these people? How are you going to do your recruiting? When do you bring these people on? When they come on, you don't have a factory—what are they going to do? How are you going to make effective use of them?” So there's a lot of non-construction issues that I would call setup issues that were required to get us ready to go.

Was there a template from Navistar to get everyone ready?

Navistar had some corporate-driven policies and procedures, particularly medical and safety and stuff like that. But all of that has to be tweaked to plant-specific wording and practices. Then there were some areas where we just had to start from scratch—a lot of the manufacturing processes that are not necessarily similar to what we do in other plants, the order of operations, the tools that are being used, some of the validation processes. Things we're starting out uniquely in this plant.  

And, finding things for people to do without having a plant. What did you have them doing?

We utilized the space in our advanced technology center that was eight miles away. We set up a hands-on training area for new hires, so they could experience some of the basics of different jobs: what a trim job is what a frame job is what a paint job is. And then toward the end of onboarding process, we actually set up what we call a tear-down. We took trucks, and for training purposes, we had people tear the trucks down, put them back together, tear the truck down, weld it back together. So they get repetitions in and learn how the parts go together and get familiar with all the parts and the processes and that sort of thing. That’s the fun stuff. And then the not-so-fun stuff. We actually had them sit in rooms in front of computers and type up standard-work instructions. The knowledge they gained from doing the tear-downs and builds they had utilize to write standard-work instructions.

How challenging was it to stay on schedule?

It was very challenging. The weather's bad, you can't control Mother Nature. COVID certainly had an impact. We saved some budget because we couldn't have [corporate] people located here like we wanted to. But I would have rather spent the money, to be honest with you. A lot of our people that we would have liked to have in town and on the site were not because of COVID. Our manufacturing engineering team, our construction management group; you like to have war rooms and have everyone together sitting around the table. And you just you just couldn't have that during a lot of the construction period due to COVID.

We certainly had supply issues. Typically, in a project this size, you're always going to have some issues. And certainly I think we had more than our share of a typical project due to that. Whether it's chips for your DC equipment, whether it's steel, laptops—regardless of what it is, you've got to identify what the what the issues are, what your options are and what your alternatives are and pick a path and go

Did you have to have to change schedules, because, say, equipment wasn't coming?

We had to change and modify the schedule frequently, the sequence of activities, even the operations of how we installed some things. We certainly had to maintain flexibility. When something came up, like “we need this part by November 1 and we’re not going to have it until November 15,” then it’s: “Okay, get everyone in the room. What can we do? Is there a way we can substitute the part? Can we expedite the part? Or have we really got to live with November 15? And what can we do not to make an impact to the overall project schedule?"

What was the biggest supply chain challenge?

The [semiconductor] chips were a significant, significant issue. There were other supplier issues that are your run-of-the-mill supplier issues, but the chips were definitely an out-of-the-ordinary situation.

From the ground up, what kind of culture do you want to have? And how are you getting there?

We really want an employee-empowered culture. My job is plant manager; my primary customers are my employees. We want a culture where employees are respected, where they're treated well, where they have a voice, where they are invested in Navistar, San Antonio. That this is a place they want to come to work. Where they take pride in their work and feel that their efforts and their contributions are appreciated. And they need to be consulted on improvements and opportunities and defects and problems. 

We also want to be a good citizen to the San Antonio community. The Battle of Flowers Day [the culmination of the city’s annual Fiesta, held since 1891] in San Antonio has a lot of the employees’ kids marching in the big parade. So, we said, let's use that as one of our paid holidays and get people to time off to spend with their families and their kids and celebrate fiesta. We’ve put together several events with the community, like delivering food to people for Thanksgiving. We’re trying to walk the walk when it comes to community and family involvement.

Hear Navistar Executive Vice President of Manufacturing and Logistics Mark Hernandez speak on “Making Benchmark Manufacturing a Reality” at the IndustryWeek Manufacturing and Technology Show Oct. 18-20, 2022.

Got a manufacturing executive-level candidate for Profiles in Leadership? Contact IndustryWeek Senior Editor Laura Putre.

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