John Ridgeway's career has taken him from retail to financial services and back to both in his current job as corporate manager of the Customer Service Center, East for Toyota Financial Services in Owings Mills, Md. Ridgeway's learned some amazing lessons in more than three decades in corporate America, which he shares here with DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti.
For Ridgeway, who now oversees 400 associates and nearly 1,100 dealers on the East Coast, the key to engaged and productive employees—who create happy customers—is a respectful workplace and the ability to give back to the community. Toyota Motor North America is No. 46 in The 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.
See articles on corporate philanthropy. Also, scroll down for a video excerpt of this interview.
RIDGEWAY: I grew up in Wilmington, Del., and graduated from Delaware State in 1975. Upon graduation, I started my career with Sears Credit. They did a credit-management training program. It was an 11-month program and I had multiple assignments. Each assignment gave me more areas of responsibility, and one of the things that was required was the ability to relocate.
VISCONTI: So Sears taught you the credit business. That stayed with you your whole career?
RIDGEWAY: Yes, it did. You have to perform and you have to be acceptable to coaching and be acceptable in growth. Through those opportunities, I had the chance to get involved with some meaningful projects, and then I could make myself known and could really own and make a contribution to the company.
VISCONTI: Where did you go after Sears?
RIDGEWAY: Our credit portfolio was purchased by CitiCorp. I took an opportunity with Bank of America as a senior vice president, operations, in Richmond, Va. My career was moving very rapidly there and I thought things were going to go very well. Then Bank of America bought MBNA. It was almost like the Citi transition. I believe in career development, so during that transition I did a self-assessment of where I was in my life. I started looking at other opportunities.
I was talking to a recruiter about Toyota and he hit my soft spot. I've always loved cars. I grew up in a neighborhood of cars. When I was six years old, my brothers' friends would say, "John, what's that car going down the street?"
VISCONTI: Describe your job at Toyota.
RIDGEWAY: Toyota reminds me a little bit of the Sears job that we evolved into in the 1980s, where we had what we called regional credit-card operation centers. We had responsibility for multiple lines of business.
The nice thing about this job is I have a chance to manage people. I have a chance to make a contribution to the bottom line of the company with the receivables. What I really enjoy is that you get a chance to do initiatives in the community. That's where Toyota is very good, probably better than any company I've ever been in, giving you the autonomy to do things in the community.
VISCONTI: You do an incredible amount in the community. Tell me a little bit about that and what that means to the people who work here.
RIDGEWAY: My favorite is James McHenry Elementary School. It's a school in inner-city Baltimore. Some of our associates tutored students and put together a pen-pal program. One year, for the sixth grade's graduation, we bought all the students sneakers. The place went crazy. And I went up and I spoke to the kids.
Every year, we have James McHenry Day at our facility. One of the successes of that program is that in order for the kids to come to Toyota, they cannot have had any disciplinary issues over a 60-day period. The principal told us they saw a 300 percent to 400 percent improvement.
All those things matter to our associates … Toyota has some good programs. We have one called GPS, "Grow, Perform, Succeed," which is, in part, about exposure. How do you get the appropriate exposure? How do you get the appropriate experience?
Then we have the PGD, the Professional Development Group, which is for mentoring.
See articles on mentoring best practices.
VISCONTI: I don't think very many companies understand mentoring. What you're talking about concerning people, how do you connect that to the business, and how does that drive money for Toyota's bottom line?
RIDGEWAY: It's very simple: Caring for people and encouraging people to come to work, encouraging people to produce.
That's our responsibility as a leader—to motivate and encourage. Treat people as you want to be treated. At some point in time, everyone requires unique attention … Our role as leaders is to identify those needs and help address them.
VISCONTI: How is your care and nurturing of your workforce contributing to Toyota's bottom line?
RIDEWAY: Customer retention and customer satisfaction equals repeat buyers and additional goods and services that Toyota's offering … If customers are happy, and customers remember the Toyota experience, more often than not they will either pay equal, and sometimes greater, to retain that experience. That's where customer satisfaction or customer delight comes into play.
We have happy customers, we have happy associates, we're more profitable, and because we're more profitable, we have more funds that we can award you, the compensation could be richer, you can do more fun things in the center, and you really can go home at night feeling fulfilled that you made someone happy.
One of my missions, since I started here five years ago, has really focused on building self-esteem. We really worked a lot at that in five years to get people feeling good about themselves and feeling good about the contributions that they're making to the company.