Tenneco rebuilds its employees' morale

A commitment to being transparent enabled the auto-parts manufacturer to regain staff confidence

Less than a decade ago, employee morale at Tenneco, a Fortune 500 auto parts manufacturer with more than $6.2 billion in 2007 sales, was at an all-time low after it was spun off from its parent company in late 1999.

"Less than 40% of our employees worldwide had confidence in the senior management team and in the strategy," says Jim Spangler, VP of global communications, adding that the employee dissatisfaction was driven by a high turnover rate in corporate management.

The company's new management team immediately set out to create metrics and goals. The task of communicating those objectives to the organization's thousands of employees fell to Spangler and his staff.

A few years later, thanks to the dedication of the five-person communications staff in reaching out to Tenneco stakeholders from factory workers to executives, confidence in the company is up, Spangler adds. In addition, most workers are now very aware of what the company is trying to accomplish.

"You can go to any of our plants or operators, and they can show you how the corporate strategy is aligned with the business strategy, which is aligned with the division strategy," he explains. "When our new chairman [Gregg Sherrill] joined us in January 2007 and they were introducing him to the organization, the one thing that stood out to him was that every plant he walked into around the world, every business meeting he was in, he saw this alignment."

Spangler adds that the trust management developed with employees - he says more than 80% of staffers now think the company is on the right track - is a product of management speaking frankly with them.

"Now, we're talking growth. The reason our message is received and our employees buy in is that when we were in those dark days of 2000 and 2001, we said that we were going to communicate the good, the bad, and the ugly," he says. "We were very candid. Where you gain credibility is when you're up front with them and you explain the business rationale."

Tenneco's management focuses its external strategy on working with about two dozen prominent news organizations, establishing close relationships between its executives and key reporters, according to Spangler. Those relationships, as well as the communications staff's familiarity with the company's business practices, are a result of its proximity to upper management, says Jane Ostrander, executive director of global communications.

"It's a global company, but extremely lean in all of the functional areas," she explains. "We're flexible and lean, so we try to mimic what our businesses do, and the reason they can be effective is that they can flex their operations. Our office area is literally across the hall from the CEO's office. We're [working on] so much, and then prioritizing and making sure we're delivering on everything globally."

The close relationship with management results in the communications staff's awareness of various key issues from the early stages of deals or product debuts, Ostrander says.

"Businesspeople come to us and say, 'We have this issue, how should we deal with this from a communications perspective?'" she says. "Recently we announced an acquisition. Right away we were brought in to see what was the strategy for [discussing] it."

Spangler and his staff's goals also include making sure that Tenneco employees are on top of outside trends that, while beyond the control of the communications staff, are of great concern to staff and customers.

For example, the company's PR staff and upper management can talk about economic and environmental concerns and how Tenneco is responding to them, he says.

"We have a North American business dedicated to emissions control, so [employees and customers are enthusiastic] when they hear our chairman talk about this new business and all the business we're winning worldwide because of it," he says, adding that the company's global outlook positions it to better withstand an economic downturn. "If I'm sitting in Detroit or New York, I think this is a really tough business [economically] now, but if I sit in Shanghai or Brussels, I think this is a pretty good business right now."

At a glance

Company: Tenneco
Headquarters: Lake Forest, IL
Chairman, CEO: Gregg Sherrill
Revenue: $6.2 billion
Comms budget: Undisclosed
Key trade titles: Automotive News, Automotive News Europe, Ward's Auto, Automotive Engineering International, Automotive Design and Production
Communications team: James Spangler, VP, global comms; Jane Ostrander, executive director, global comms; Simonetta Esposito, PR manager, European comms; Fara Young, comms representative
PR firm: No AOR; APCO (Brussels/Europe, China, and India); agencies in selected countries as needed

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