When Jim Bolte first began dating his wife, Tami, in college, there was a bit of a language barrier.
See, Tami, was a sign language major.
“I would go out with Tami and her friends and they would sign to each other and point at me and laugh,” says Bolte who, since 2009 has been the President of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama (TMMAL). “And I wouldn’t have a clue what they were saying.”
To fix the problem, Bolte took a sign language class of his own to make sure they weren’t saying anything too bad. Nowadays, Bolte can use sign language to communicate with hearing impaired team members.
Bolte’s professional life now revolves around building V-8, V-6 and 4-cylinder engines for Toyota vehicles. In September, TMMAL built its 4 millionth engine, so things are going pretty well.
Bolte began his career in Information Services and has enjoyed an adventurous upward path to President of TMMAL. Driver’s Seat asked him about this journey, his past and maybe even his political aspirations.
What’s your favorite movie?
I have trouble with those kinds of questions, like what’s your favorite meal, who’s your favorite granddaughter…
So you have a favorite granddaughter?
You’re recording this, right?
Then no, I don’t.
I was thinking about movies that impact me the most. Things like The Deer Hunter. I remember leaving the movie theater thinking, “I can’t believe how the folks in Vietnam went through this.” Or something like The Silence of the Lambs, where you’re trying to solve a problem, trying to figure out a mystery. Those are the ones that have impacted me the most.
Tell me about life growing up.
I was born in Louisville, Ky. My father was transferred to Buffalo, N.Y. He was with an oil company. Then he got transferred to Ashland, Ky. I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a Computer Science degree and joined Ashland oil company right out of college as a computer programmer. Sad to say, this was before the Internet even existed.
Why did you decide to get into computers?
I thought someday everyone would own a computer. I had no idea how or why. Back then it was just big mainframes.
So that’s a pretty big prediction at the time.
Now we’re all carrying around iPhones that are more powerful than anything I worked on back in the 70s.
How did you get to Toyota?
When Toyota came to Georgetown, I was the 351st person they hired. Even before the plant was finished, I was working in information systems and ended up becoming the vice president of IS for Toyota North America on the manufacturing side. Then I got a call one day from the TEMA president asking if I would be willing to go to the new plant in Alabama. I ended up double capping as VP of IS and VP of the Alabama plant for three years.
Talk about the demands of double duty.
For three years, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I was in Alabama. Thursday I was in Erlanger and Friday I was in Georgetown.
It’s tough because you really can’t do either job 100 percent as well as you could or should because you’re dividing your time. But sometimes you have to do it just to bridge the gap until someone else is named.
In July 2006 I decided to stay here in Alabama full time, and in April 2009 I became president. Despite my involvement, it’s gone really well so far.
Why did they tab an IS guy to run a manufacturing plant?
I have no clue. But really, I think it’s because IS people are pretty good at problem solving. This plant, with 1,300 people and 1.2 million square feet is very dynamic. Something is changing all the time. Humans are going to make mistakes and machines are going to break down. It’s a given. I think IS people have that kind of logical thinking that helps solve the problems. But it has got to be someone that can communicate well because you’re leading a big organization. So I’m not sure why I was sent to Alabama, but I like to think it was because of communication and problem solving experience.
And no offense, but communication isn’t necessarily IS’ strong point. Do those skills come naturally to you, or is it something that you worked on?
I think you’re correct. The typical stereotype is that IS folks have stronger skills on the technical side than on the people skills or communication. And it’s a big sweeping categorization that isn’t always true. In fact, I think it’s really changing. Back in the old days you had guys walking around with pocket protectors. But it’s really changed in recent years.
One of the best parts of my job is communicating with people. To get up and give speeches, my favorite part is the Q&A with the audience. I don’t know where it’s going, but I try to make it fun and memorable. If the audience is engaged, they’re going to remember what you said as opposed to reading a speech. I think I’ve gotten better over the years with practice.
So the big question, were you one of those guys with the pocket protector back in the day?
Ok. I’ll take your word for it.
I’ve got pictures to prove it!
What event in your life meant the most to your current success?
I left IS for about four years from 1994 to 1998 and did a corporate strategy function at TEMA, which really gave me a lot of exposure to all the plants in North America. That really opened the door to movement in my career. But it was really scary to leave my area of training and expertise to do something totally different, but I think it really grew me in terms of the breadth of my experience and exposure to the regional organization.
Your career has progressed upwards over time. What’s the secret to that?
Communication, problem solving and getting results. Those are the key categories you have to focus on. But it’s really about building relationships with people. If you’ve got good relationships and you’re communicating well and solving problems together and getting good results, it’s going to be noticed. A lot of people start out and say I want to president in 10 years. I’ve never done that. If it gets noticed, it gets noticed. In most cases it has. But I’ve never taken it for granted. I’ve never been handed a position. I think you need to be willing to move laterally to get other experiences.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your current role?
Sales are very strong in North America, so our demand is very high. Team members are working 10-hour days. In some cases on Saturdays, Sundays and over a holiday weekend.
I’m so impressed with their willingness to do that. But it’s hard and nobody wants to do it forever. For us, it’s balancing team member morale, keeping motivation high and staying focused on good quality, safety and productivity.
What’s the most effective way to lead people?
Build personal relationships. I’ve probably met with hundreds of people individually. My assistant will schedule one-on-one meetings randomly several times a week. We just sit down and chat about whatever they want to talk about. I think that resonates with people. I always ask if they’ve heard any rumors. It’s a great way for me to hear what’s going on. And I hear a lot.
What’s the best rumor you’ve heard that wasn’t true?
That I was running for the mayor of Huntsville. That definitely wasn’t true.
Most of your employees work on the line. How much experience do you have on the production line?
I don’t have a lot. I did it for a week at TMMK. I worked in the paint sealer area, and they were watching me very closely. They took guys that don’t typically work on the line and we got to experience what that was like. That’s where I gained a lot of respect for team members.
Did that affect how you do your job at all?
It affects the decision making that we have. Because as a management team, we look at team members as our customers. I want to be able to try to remove any obstacles that prevent them from doing their job the best they can. Every decision we make is predicated around how it’s going to impact the team members. I can lead all day long, but without the team members, we don’t get one engine built. So it’s important to understand who is really running the company. It’s really the team members.
What are you driving these days?
A Lexus RC 350
I appreciate the chance to talk to you. Even though I’m an ex-IS guy, it’s been great to communicate with you.
By Dan Nied
originally published on toyotadriverseat.com, 1/25/16