LORDSTOWN, Ohio – For a top executive’s office, Rick Rajaie’s is sparsely furnished.
There is no oak or leather furniture. It has none of the luxuries or trappings that one would normally associate with a high-level position.
Instead, the space consists of two single chairs separated by a small, white-top bistro table and a clutter-free desk. In the back is another small table surrounded by four additional chairs, while a smaller table sits off to the side. All of it purchased from Ikea.
“We always believe that ego and title will never get you anywhere,” Rajaie says.
Rajaie is the vice president of operations of Foxconn EV North America.
He explains that the driving force behind Foxconn’s plans for its Lordstown assembly plant is to create an entirely new culture. These range from small gestures such as inexpensive but practical furniture, the addition of United States flags throughout the plant, and eating lunch with employees in the complex’s cafeteria. Others such as adhering to workers’ concerns and ensuring their safety are a priority for Rajaie and are integral in building a productive workforce as the industry undergoes a seismic transition.
“We take our culture and values seriously,” he says. “We believe that’s the dominant factor to bring our vision to reality.”
That vision includes placing Foxconn at the forefront of the emerging electric-vehicle market and transforming the 6.2 million-square-foot Lordstown manufacturing complex – a plant that once produced more than 300,000 combustion-engine vehicles per year – into a hub of EV innovation and technical ingenuity. The goal is to fill the plant, once owned by General Motors Co., with a diverse set of EV products that Foxconn would build as a contract-manufacturing partner.
Critical to this is firmly establishing a working environment that celebrates successes and “lessons learned” – Rajaie does not use the word “mistakes” – by engaging all of the employees.
“When your employees are in the trench, your executives must be in the trench with them,” he says.
THE SHIFT BEGINS
On a morning in October, employees begin to file inside the plant well before the sun rises. In this particular part of the complex, workers staff the production line that assembles the EV batteries used in the MK-V, the all-electric autonomous tractor that Foxconn produces for Monarch Tractor, based in Livermore, Calif.
Before the shift begins, those on the line engage with supervisors for about five minutes of ergonomic stretches. This allows these workers to loosen their joints and tendons that are susceptible to wear and tear because of repetitive tasks common to any manufacturing process. By 6 a.m. the line is abuzz with activity because these employees assemble the heart of the MK-V – the battery that drives this unique product.
Currently, the MK-V is the sole EV in production at Foxconn Ohio. The tractor is among the first of its kind – an all-electric vehicle with a fully autonomous option. Once the batteries are assembled, they are sent to the general assembly line, where they will eventually be installed in the vehicle.
“They are the first in their field. So it’s exciting to bring this first in the market,” says Ray Root, Foxconn supervisor at general assembly. Root says he spent about three months in California learning the intricacies and manufacturing processes used to produce the MK-V. “Once we came here, we set these lines up and implemented their processes,” he says.
Root is no stranger to the automotive industry and the Lordstown complex. “I’ve been at this plant since 1999,” he says, when GM produced the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire. Before joining GM, Root worked in the heavy equipment industry with Cleveland Trench, helping to build some of the largest earth-moving machinery in the world. “This is in my wheelhouse,” he says.
For Root, the methods to build the MK-V compared to what he was accustomed to at GM couldn’t be more different. “At GM, a line worker would have a job that’s in a 60-second time frame,” he says, referring to a single task assigned to a single worker on a moving assembly line.
In this case, Root says, Foxconn employees are trained on the entire vehicle. “I can teach these guys how to build a complete tractor,” he says. “That’s what is one of the great things here.”
These employees understand motor assembly, wiring harnesses, as well as bodywork and electronics, he says. “Not only do we have the main line, we also have a bunch of sub-assemblies,” he adds.
For a tractor, many of the components are heavier and bulkier than an automotive build, Root says. “This is bigger, stronger, and takes a little more effort.”
Root says it’s nevertheless important to discern which employees best fit a particular role in the assembly process. “When we start doing something, we move the right people to the right places. We push people to find out what they’re best at.”
Moreover, Root says, this experience enables employees to broaden their knowledge and skill sets.
“That sense of completion is off the charts,” he says. “They become a master. It’s amazing. The more they learn, the more they want to learn. That’s something very different here. There’s a ton of opportunity.”
CREATING THE CULTURE
Some 450 Foxconn employees work at the plant. Another 100 or so are considered outside contractors.
During lunch, an open concourse cafeteria allows for supervisors, hourly employees and executives to exchange ideas or thoughts.
At other breaks during the workday, employees can participate in fitness classes or perform a short workout on their own in the plant gym. As such, Foxconn promotes everything from healthful diets to regular exercise to relieve stress.
“Goals of the company are to help employees engage in activities that are beneficial to their health,” says Kevin Watson, a fitness and wellness specialist at Foxconn.
It’s also a keen business strategy that ultimately enhances employee health, the ability of the company to build its workforce, attract new customers and make more money, Rajaie says.
“We’re here to make money,” he says. “To acquire new businesses and produce high-quality electric vehicles.”
A disgruntled workforce is not a means to achieve this, Rajaie says. “Our culture is very simple,” he continues. “We always say that safe, healthy employees can yield great products for you. Happy employees who have been compensated well always go the extra mile to exceed expectations.”
Establishing a welcoming work environment is also important to attract new talent, which is essential to the company in building a workforce in the Mahoning Valley, Rajaie says.
From Day One, Rajaie says it was imperative to strike up relationships across the Mahoning Valley and Ohio. These include local public officials, development organizations and academic institutions such as Youngstown State University, Kent State University and Eastern Gateway Community College.
The company also gained the ears of public officials across the state, such as Gov. Mike DeWine, area congressmen and senators. “At every level you can think of, we’re all connected with them,” he says. “It’s primarily to understand where the gap is and how Foxconn can fill that gap.”
Rajaie is under no illusion about the tight job market, especially in the Mahoning Valley and northeastern Ohio. That’s why Foxconn has reached out to universities, colleges – even high schools – across the country to recruit new talent, he says. Competition for these employees, especially in the EV space, is fierce and Foxconn wants to be in prime position to recruit premium employees, he says.
“Once we secure business here and, trust me, it will happen very soon for us to get serious business here – then the real problem would be how to train the workforce and bring it here to the Mahoning Valley,” Rajaie says. “We need to be prepared.”
Rajaie is an engineer by education and has spent the last 32 years in the automotive industry, serving with Tier 1 suppliers and major original-equipment manufacturers such as GM. Over the last 18 years, he’s worked exclusively with EVs. Among the biggest strengths he brings to Foxconn, he says, is his automotive experience as well as his network across the EV industry.
“I haven’t done any engineering for awhile,” he says. “Most of my time is spent in meetings.”
Rajaie says a typical day begins early in the morning, spending much of his time on the phones or communicating by email to customers or colleagues from around the world.
“I’ll start with the eastern time zone and Europe,” he says. “Then I’ll end the day with conference calls with Asia – sometimes late at night.”
He says the ability to communicate quickly with top executives – even Chairman Young Liu – is important.
“We have access to our management all the way to our chairman in Taiwan,” Rajaie says. “It helps us tremendously, because within hours, we’ll be able to make critical decisions for our people, for our business, to move forward.”
Pictured at top: Establishing a welcoming work environment is important to attract talent, says Foxconn’s Rick Rajaie.