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Put Me In, Coach

As plant manager at the Nissan facility in Decherd, Tennessee, Rick Youngblood believes in empowering others.

For Rick Youngblood, coaching his youngest son’s baseball team is a lot like managing the 2,500 employees at the Nissan plant in Decherd, Tennessee. “When we’re at the end of a practice or a game, we break down our team meetings with two words: ‘attitude’ and ‘effort,’” says Youngblood, 57, director of engine assembly and power train manufacturing. “I tell them, ‘Your attitude determines how high you can go; your effort determines how quickly you can get there.’ That’s no different if you’re on the shop floor building engines for Nissan or if you’re on the baseball field, fielding a hot grounder.”

Thirty-four years after joining the company as a production technician, Youngblood now spends much of his time in the Decherd factory, talking to staff members and letting them voice their concerns. The son of a minister, he grew up in Chattanooga and attended the University of Tennessee there with the dream of becoming an architect, but later dropped out to support his wife and family. It would be two more decades before he’d finish his degree. 

After working for an insurance agent for a couple of years, he says, “I had reached the point where I was so tired of dealing with the public, and the hustle and bustle of the insurance world, that I was looking for a job where I was responsible for only my little square of the world and I didn’t have to worry about anybody else.”

In 1983, Youngblood learned that the new Nissan body assembly plant in Smyrna, near Nashville, was hiring. So, armed with a bit of welding experience and an architect’s penchant for creating things from the ground up, Youngblood applied and landed a job building white metal truck beds. When the Sentra line opened up, he was asked to join the original launch team and spent a great deal of time in Japan, learning about the product. A promotion to management in 1989 propelled his journey through the ranks, from quality control to senior manager and, in 2002, the position of plant manager of body assembly — where one of his greatest accomplishments, he says, was the challenging launch of the Altima there in 2001. 

Youngblood chuckles when recalling the time he asked his supervisor about doing something different. “And it wasn’t but about a month later that I was responsible for body and stamping, both. That’s not exactly what I had in mind.”

After that, he served as director of base, trim and chassis production. By then, Youngblood had earned his bachelor’s degree, not in architecture but, at the suggestion of a mentor, in management and human relations, from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. “I think if you get to a point where you understand that it’s really all about the people,” he says of the switch, “then everything else falls into place.”

On a late afternoon in 2009, Youngblood’s boss walked into his office and said, “Rick, I’ve got a project for you. I want you to go to Decherd.” 

“Well, gosh, it’ll be closed by the time I get there,” Youngblood replied, noting the 65-mile drive from Smyrna. “No,” the supervisor corrected. “I want you to go a little more permanent than that.”

In his eight years as director at the Decherd plant, Youngblood has witnessed the shift from sedans to crossover SUVs and trucks. He has built 4-cylinder engines for the Altima and Rogue; 6-cylinder versions for the Infiniti JX, Pathfinder, Altima and Murano; V-8 engines for the Titan, and the electric motor for the LEAF. Colleagues refer to him as a wonderful motivator, mentor and coach who is respectful to co-workers at both ends of the corporate ladder.

“I think it’s like teaching your kids to ride a bicycle,” he says. “The most difficult thing that you have to do is let go of that seat. But you also know that there’s no way they’re ever going to be able to do it on their own unless they skin their knees. You’ve got to be there to pick them up and dust them off. And to me that’s what a leadership role is.”

Despite his team spirit and passion for camaraderie, Youngblood says that his somewhat-introverted personality makes him more comfortable “standing back at the edge of the field.” He prefers to be hands-on — “I hate the office,” he admits — and serve as a resource when his employees need help.

When he needs assistance with an equipment problem or other issue, he often turns to his peers at the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association, for which he is currently serving a second stint as president. 

“If you look at the automobile manufacturers or the people that are in the industry in the state of Tennessee, or across the Southeast for that matter, we compete with each other,” he says. “But there’s a tremendous amount of benchmarking and best practices out there that go untapped unless you gather those people in one place. And that doesn’t matter if you’re in Tennessee or Alabama or Mississippi or Georgia. 

“That’s what all of those organizations are trying to accomplish — ‘Let me teach you what I know and then learn from you’ — because all that does is make our industry stronger. We all know and understand that there are some trade secrets that we’re not going to discuss, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of manufacturing, there are not so many industry secrets.”

The greatest challenge right now for Nissan North America and its competitors, says Youngblood, is that young people don’t understand that there are enjoyable, good-paying manufacturing jobs available in the U.S. 

“This isn’t your grandmother’s or your grandfather’s, or even your mom and dad’s, factory any more. Most of the time when you talk with high school kids, they envision a factory as being a dark, dingy, nasty place to work. It’s not like that any more. Today’s manufacturing facilities are very high-tech, very clean, very much safety-oriented places where you can not only get a job but you can also build a career.”

At work, Youngblood likes nothing better than to see “the lights come on and the smiles and the high fives” when his employees reach their quality and productivity goals. 

“Part of it has to do with the leadership that my father showed me,” he says. “Growing up, it was instilled in me to be a true servant leader. He taught me that being in a leadership position meant that really you are at the bottom of the [organizational] chart because your job is to serve everybody that’s on the chart above you. The most rewarding part of the job is seeing people be successful.”

During his downtime, in addition to coaching youth baseball — he’s also president of the local league for 4- to 18-year-olds — Youngblood is an avid golfer and woodworker who fashions cabinets, bookcases and furniture at his home workshop in his spare time.

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