ELO Webinar with Rob Wildeboer: Facing The Economic Challenges of the COVID-19 Pandemic (Part I)

NEWS RELEASE – MAY 21, 2020 – ELO hosted Rob Wildeboer for a Webinar and Q&A with Dr. Rick Goossen on May 20th, 2020. Rob Wildeboer is the Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of Martinrea International Inc., a global auto parts supplier, specializing in automotive fluid systems and metal forming products. Martinrea has over 17,000 employees at 59 plants in 9 countries (including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and China) on 5 continents and generates almost $4 billion in revenue.

Rob Wildeboer recently had to lay off almost 14,000 employees. He is dealing with the unprecedented economic challenges of the current COVID-19 pandemic. During the webinar, Rob shared his strategy for dealing with this crisis, how to assess information, who to rely on and how to plan as well as possible.

Here is a summary of some of the insights from the conversation with Rob Wildeboer, which have been paraphrased and summarized for brevity. To access a recording of the webinar CLICK HERE 


NOTE: For the exact context of Rob Wildeboer’s remarks and a word-for-word record of his comments, please refer to the webinar recording. The below summary is not to be quoted as the exact words of Rob Wildeboer. Thank you.


RG: What is the niche of Martinrea?

ROB: We are a leader in metal forming technologies both in steel and aluminum. We are the second-largest metal former in North America, one of the largest aluminum parts makers in the automotive business and we also specialize in fluid systems which are the fuel lines in the brake lines and fuel fillers you see in your vehicle. We also have an industrial division that makes parts for companies such as John Deere.

RG: When the pandemic was first identified as a serious problem, what was the immediate reaction of yourself and the company?

ROB: To a certain extent it's not every day that you are working full time one week and then shutting down your operations the next week and going from 100% revenue to 0% revenue in your plants which is basically what happened in various jurisdictions. We had 17,000 employees and within a week we had close to 14,000 on layoff which is absolutely amazing. It’s just what you got to do to preserve your costs.

RG: What is the priority you place on workers’ safety and how did that factor into your decision making regarding layoffs?

ROB: The entire approach of our industry and I think of other industries as well is that you need to take care of your people. If you don't take care of your people then you don't get their loyalty, you don't get their best and they’ll find work elsewhere. That is a fundamental principle of running a business.

RG: You mentioned that you need to “take care of our people”—is that something Martinrea does uniquely?

ROB: I would say that our company does this extremely well. Peter Drucker said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” So you spend a lot of time on your culture and what differentiates you and this is particularly important when times are tougher. We're seeing that work is a place that people want to come to and actually see it as a purpose-driven thing. They also want to have a comfort zone to feel safe at work. This isn't just physical safety. People need to experience a type of empowerment that you have when you come to work and have a job.

RG: As a Christian and a leader in your company, what has been your approach to culture?

ROB: I'll provide one example. We've talked about our culture at our annual shareholder meetings. When we do an investor presentation you can see our culture slide and our principles slide in every presentation that we do. In this context I include “The Golden Rule” and describe it as a way to treat people the way you want to be treated. It’s actually a Christian principle, but there are similar principles in other religions. If you can come up with a better way to run a business then I’d like to hear from you. Treat your suppliers the way you want to be treated. We are a supplier to some of the biggest customers on earth and they're tough. They're very, very tough. But at the end of the day let's treat our suppliers well because in times like we are in right now these are suppliers that can help us, that can make us or break us. Treat your employees the way you want to be treated.

RG: It’s vital to keep people safe, but if they don't have a job isn't it better to keep people working in some way?

ROB: When you have people that are not working, you have very unhealthy situations. One issue is mental health. It's no fun to be poor. It's no fun to have stress. It's no fun to not be able to afford the type of medical care that you need. At the end of the day, it is a very bad thing to have high unemployment.

I have been advocating all the way through that we have to understand that COVID–19 is a threat but let's understand the scope of the threat. Let's deal with the surge but be very careful about the mass shutdowns of the economy. We've managed to flatten the curve on COVID-19—but we've also flattened the economy. The government has overreached mightily when it comes to the shutdowns. You need to focus on the vulnerable but you have to recognize that there are huge societal issues when you shut down the economy. In our case, there are almost 14,000 on layoff. Those are people who want to work. They want to have a job. They want to have the benefits of doing that and we are working extremely hard to get them back to work. There are a lot of people that just don't have six months of savings to effectively take this kind of hit and isolate themselves


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