On the Rise: Neil Bockrath
Master Black Belt | Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. | Age: 36
What was your first job in the industry?
I began my career as a co-op in the technical department with Cooper Tire, starting just one week after my high school graduation. At Kettering University, students spend every other quarter in a co-op position from the time they are freshman, which means those co-oping in the summer and winter quarters start their positions before they attend a single college class. During my time as a co-op, Cooper gave me the opportunity to work in several departments within manufacturing, testing and product development. In 2005, I was hired full-time as a passenger tire development engineer.
What attracted you to the industry?
Co-oping as a student gave me a chance to learn about many aspects of the industry, from design to manufacturing. I was initially attracted to the challenge of driving performance through product development. Later on I was drawn to the manufacturing challenges involved in improving process capabilities.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
The biggest challenge I have faced is leading a global effort to drive aggressive new levels of tire performance. I’ve really enjoyed working with colleagues across the world and sharing in the excitement as we achieve new levels of performance together. The most rewarding part for me is learning from our experts across each of our technical centers in Europe, Asia and North America and doing my part to help them share their knowledge by fostering collaboration throughout all of our development groups.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
I’ve been very fortunate to have dozens of career role models over the years. Cooper Tire employees Nick Schieltz (manager of tire application research) and Jeff Endicott director of the Global Tech Center) together have had the most influence on my career. In 2008, Jeff led the deployment of Lean Six Sigma within Cooper, and he gave me the opportunity to enroll in Cooper’s first wave of Black Belt training. It was in this wave I began working more closely with Nick, who was my mentor as a co-op and had since become a Black Belt. Nick has always been an excellent teacher and mentor, ready to pause whatever he was doing to patiently provide assistance and guidance. After changing positions to focus on manufacturing for a few years, I crossed paths with Nick when he hired me as a Master Black Belt to coordinate Lean Six Sigma efforts within each of the regional technical centers. I would also like to recognize Gene Glover, a continuous improvement consultant, who demonstrated how displaying your own unbridled excitement for the work you do motivates those around you, especially when teaching others new methods and skills that you strongly believe in. I’ll never forget how he would weave moving real life examples into training: in one class discussing how the use of control charts drove decisions that went against conventional medical wisdom and saved his young son’s eyesight, and how root cause analysis tools pinpointed the origin of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
What’s your biggest accomplishment in the industry?
I would say the accomplishment I am most proud of is the expansion and enhancement of the use of statistical tools within the technical organization to enable employees to maximize how much they learn from experiments. Our team of Black Belts has worked to create additional courses tied directly to the needs of the organization based on the requests of those who have come to us for assistance with data analysis and experimental design.
How do you spend your work day?
Right now about half of my job revolves around project management activities: communicating between groups and planning next steps. The other half is mostly focused on training engineers and chemists about how to set up and analyze experiments and mentoring Lean Six Sigma Green Belts and Black Belts.
What keeps you up at night?
My 19 month old son who we’re still trying to get to sleep through the night.
Early bird or night owl?
Early bird. It’s easier to get things done at work and around the house in the early morning hours.
Messy or neat freak?
A little bit of both. My desk at work could use a good bit of organization, but I tend to do a much better job keeping things up around the house.
Growing up, what was your dream job?
Taking over the family farm from my dad, mostly because I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors in any season.
Tell us about your family.
I grew up on a hog farm with my brother and three sisters. My siblings and cousins always had a lot of fun spending time on the farm and being outdoors. My sisters are all in the medical field, and my brother and I started working for Cooper Tire on the same day back in 2001. He started as a full time engineer, and I started as a co-op. Several years ago mom retired as a director of the local chamber of commerce, and dad is about to retire from farming and driving school busses at the end of this year. That’ll give them both more time to spend with their 10 grandchildren.
Describe your first car and what you loved most about it.
1994 Chevy Silverado 1500. I loved having a truck that could get me out of nearly any situation I found myself in.
Best way to spend a Saturday night:
Staying home with some friends, possibly playing games, watching a movie, laughing and catching up. I’ve found having a toddler at home quickly changes your weekend goals from going-out-on-the-town to finding any reason whatsoever to stay home and relax.
What habit do you wish you could break?
I wish I could stop my habit of staring at my phone after the alarm goes off in the morning. I waste too much time reading news, checking the weather, social media, sports, back to the weather again… etc.
How should the tire industry attract and retain more young talent?
We should reach out to young talent by demonstrating the challenges and complexity that go into all aspects of the industry – from tire design, manufacturing and marketing. Before I started with Cooper I assumed tires were simple products where rubber was poured into a mold and that every tire was basically the same thing.
What do you expect to be doing 20 years from now?
Whatever role I may be in, I hope a decent component of it involves teaching others or mentoring colleagues. As long as I have useful knowledge, I want to be able to share that with others who can benefit from it.
If you could spend a day supporting a charity, what would you do?
I’d like to help build housing with Habitat for Humanity. One of my hobbies includes working on projects around the house. I often take vacation days from work to finish projects, so I’m sure I would enjoy that type of volunteer work as well.
If you could start a new career tomorrow, what would it be?
I really enjoy what I’m doing now and do not have any alternate career I want to pursue. That being said, if I had to start over tomorrow, I’d probably enjoy being a high school teacher.