Mike Steck’s bio says he’s an engineer, but that’s not the whole story.
“Maybe I’m not so much an engineer in terms of liking to design something from scratch, ” he says. “I’m better at looking at an existing process and finding ways to improve it. I consider myself a problem solver in that regard, so that’s where my industrial engineering background sort of suits me very well.”
Steck, 50, is vice president of supply chain management for Nissan Americas. As such, he oversees supply chain activities for all Nissan and Infiniti production parts, service parts and finished vehicle distribution for the company’s plants in Tennessee and Mississippi, which last year built more than 960, 000 vehicles.
The job “is complex and the scale is very large, and if you allow it to, it could be overwhelming, ” Steck says.
“I guess the secret to it is people and management, and if they develop robust processes and good analytic tools to intercept problems immediately, when they’re occurring, there are ways to solve those problems.
“If you get to them soon enough, and people are of the right mindset to attack those problems once they occur, the trick to it is snuffing them out on a permanent basis so that you’re unlikely to encounter that same problem again.”
Steck grew up in Nashville and had an early interest in engineering. “I pretty much knew early on in high school that I wanted to get into a technical field like that and, as luck would have it, the Smyrna operation was being built right around the time I was a sophomore in high school, ” he says. “So that’s about the time I started to connect the dots and tell myself that if I wanted to be an engineer, maybe I should get into automotive.”
Steck earned an engineering degree at Tennessee Tech and worked for a supplier coming out of college. “That gave me a taste of automotive, ” he says. “I had an opportunity to go to Smyrna when Nissan was expanding to launch and prepare for the Altima at the time.
“There was a big, massive round of hiring, and that gave me a chance to join the team here in industrial engineering.”
Steck has worn different hats during his career, working in engineering, quality control, manufacturing, human resources and supply chain management roles. As a supply chain manager, he is looking first and foremost for people who know how to solve problems.
“I think it’s the team you surround yourself with and how you enable them to do their jobs, ” he says. “You have to allow them to grow and expand their capability and continue to deliver day in and day out.
“I do believe I surrounded myself with a good, capable team. Surprisingly, that team isn’t always made up of the obvious, dedicated supply chain professional.
“I tend to think about it as choosing the best athlete on the board on draft day, ” he says. “How do I get the best athlete, not necessarily the best quarterback or the best wide receiver, but the best athlete on the board and then leverage their ability to our advantage.”
Steck says the impact that Nissan has had in Smyrna and Middle Tennessee has been immeasurable since production began there in 1983. “Rutherford County continues to be one of the leading growth counties not just in Tennessee but in the nation year in and year out, ” he says.
“I would like to think that had something to do with Nissan being here and some other companies as well. I almost consider it like Nissan being an anchor tenant of a mall. Once you get an anchor tenant in, it’s easier to get other tenants in as well.”
Nissan’s success, Steck says, showed that workers in the area were capable of manufacturing cars on a really large scale.
“And it showed we could manage a multicultural exchange of personnel, because at start-up you had a lot of Japanese team members here on foreign service assignment, ” he says.
“They were welcomed into the area. The area embraced them. The impact since then has been almost too much to quantify. It’s been immeasurable, really.”
Text by Charlie Ingram