Former vice president of Harley-Davidson and 1990 UIU-Waterloo Center alumnus Steve Phillips helped Upper Iowa University’s Office of Student Development kick off its 2013-14 Leadership Series recently with a solid message: integrity.
The fourth child of 15 from Gilbertville, Iowa, Phillips had overhauled a six-cylinder engine at a young age, and got his first job at a filling station changing tires and fixing brakes when he was 12-years old. Phillips’ father, a mechanic, spent a lot of time with his boys teaching them to be good mechanics and letting them figure out how things work. Little did his father know then what an impact that kind of mechanical knowledge would have on the largest and most well-known motorcycle company in the world.
Phillips landed his first job out of high school at John Deere & Co. in Waterloo, Iowa, by perseverance. He had the opportunity to attend college, but realized his family did not have the money to send him. At 17-years old, Phillips went to John Deere to put in his application. He was told he was too young, and he replied that he knew that but really wanted to work there. So, every week until his 18th birthday he trekked to the plant and put in his application. On his birthday, he got hired and placed into the apprentice training program. Later on, he was elected union steward and was known for being very knowledgeable about the union contract (because he memorized it) and gained a reputation of being fair. Taking classes in conflict resolution also aided this endeavor.
Phillips was best known for associating with co-workers and being able to get them to work at a high level. Before long, he was the general supervisor in charge of over 800 maintenance technicians. He was told, however, he could rise no further in the company without a college degree.
He selected Upper Iowa University’s Waterloo Center and worked steadily on his degree. He graduated magna cum laude in 1990; and his wife, Michelle, told him that after all the hard work he’d put into earning his diploma, he would go to commencement in Fayette. He later went on to earn a master’s in industrial technology.
Philips said that all he had ever wanted to do was work at John Deere, and he had planned to retire from the company after 30 years. However, with a little over 26 years in, Phillips quit and went to work for Harley-Davidson.
While speaking at a conference in Milwaukee, Phillips was approached by a man who asked him if he really believed in the topic that he had just presented. A week later, he called Phillips and offered to fly him to York, Penn., for an interview. The man didn’t give a name nor the name of his company; but Phillips pressed him and he finally gave Phillips some hints. For two days, Phillips walked around the Harley-Davidson plant and took in all that he was seeing and hearing. He had worked diligently on lean manufacturing at John Deere, and what he saw at H-D was a mess. The man asked him if he could fix the process, and he replied, “Yes!”
Three weeks later, Phillips and his family had relocated to Pennsylvania and he was named the director of operations at Harley-Davidson.
Phillips said he spent a lot of time in those early days getting to know the people at the plant before implementing changes in the system. He and others in management routinely walked the floor for all three shifts once a month so that everyone knew their faces and their names, and they in turn knew their employees. “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care,” said Phillips. Moving up in leadership roles, Phillips became a vice president and retired in 2011.
The biggest piece of advice to the Upper Iowa students was: “Integrity. Always. If you’re not doing what you’re saying, nobody’s fooled.”
Phillips also added that when you have people pulling for you, your job becomes easier, “You don’t need to toot your own horn,” he said.
His favorite management practices include not taking himself too seriously, taking responsibility, and the ultimate: “If you don’t truly love people, don’t go into leadership.”
Phillips was adamant in telling the UIU students that without a college degree, Harley-Davidson would not even have looked at him. He also said that when companies like Harley-Davidson are looking at college graduates for positions, they look for a certain set of characteristics including someone who is balanced, is successful with their personal relationships and exhibits a high level of integrity.