She is perhaps the most brilliant manufacturing executive you’ve never known.
She is so skilled that she seemed too good to be real, a global CEO said, and so he considered not hiring her.
Jd Marhevko, 57, of Saline is a woman who easily steps into size 12 steel-toe boots, a hard hat and a fire-retardant coat to walk the factory floor on one day, and then pivots to a business suit to meet with investors the next.
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She changes jobs as needed, going to where crisis takes her.
The job title is unmemorable. But what she does has long-term impact.
One boss sent her to a factory to help resolve serious quality and production problems that threatened the future of an Illinois site. She worked closely with hourly and salaried workers, production, quality and engineering teams to identify root causes and fix the hot mess of a situation, and saved 650 jobs.
“She isn’t afraid to go to where the war is and work the front lines,” said Rick Dauch, CEO of Delphi Technologies, which designs and builds vehicle propulsion systems, in an interview from his office in London. “At the same time, she’ll go to the board of directors in New York City and talk to CEOs and CFOs and explain why they need to invest and not close the factories.”
Dauch has hired her twice, which is shocking only because his first encounter when she seemed too good to be true was so unusual. She’s so well-read, so well-educated and she’s got all the credentials, but Dauch wondered whether she had the grit needed to do the job. In the end, he trusted his gut.
So Marhevko asked her new boss where he wanted her to go. He sent her in the winter of 2012 to Rockford, Illinois, to a hot metal iron casting plant with so many quality problems that the operation was on a death watch.
“I didn’t see her physically for 60 days,” Dauch said. “It was a beast of a plant that started in the 1820s and was left to rot by the previous owners over two decades. We chose to fix it instead of closing it and getting rid of 650 jobs.”
When Marhevko left, her work complete, the plant went from producing more than one bad part for every 10 made at 13% scrap to less than 3% within two years, dropping to 1% within five years. She worked with the teams at Rockford to assess the hydraulics equipment, layout structure on the assembly line and tooling.
That was when Marhevko was a senior vice president of global quality and environmental health and safety for the $1.3 billion Accuride, which builds wheels, wheel ends and braking components for vehicles.
Now she’s vice president of quality at the $4.4 billion Delphi Technologies.
Quality executives can make the difference between having a flawless production system or a money-losing disaster.
Ford Motor Co., for example, publicly acknowledged its botched launch of the Explorer and Lincoln Aviator in fall 2019, when the company had to ship vehicles from Chicago Assembly to Flat Rock to do postproduction fixes. The situation was blamed for a disappointing earnings report, followed by an executive shake-up.
Quality review — what Marhevko does — is usually unnoticed by customers when things go right and felt significantly when things go wrong.
Sand and seaweed
The smell of oil on a garage floor reminds Marhevko of her grandfather.
He told little Jeanenne Marie that she needed to know how to operate everything, “so I would not be an educated a– telling a working man how to do his job,'” Marhevko said. “‘Grandpa spoke many languages and swore well in all of them. He had quite a shop in his garage” in Harrison Township.
He showed her how to change oil, rotate tires, bypass an air filter and stick a screwdriver into the butterfly of the carburetor to burn off excess fuel.
“We were avid fishermen on Lake St. Clair,” Marhevko said. “One summer, I failed to properly hook up the boat motor to the hoist after coming in from a boating trip. The motor sank. After a few dives and a patient grandfather, we had it rigged back up. It was full of sand and strips of slimy seaweed. Grandpa made me take apart the motor, dry it all off and rebuild it that day in the garage.”
She studied mechanical engineering at Oakland University, and manufacturing plant management through Central Michigan University, choosing to use initials “Jd” to more easily blend with male colleagues.
By age 28, Marhevko had a career in engine and parts manufacturing. Growing up in Mount Clemens, she realized she needed a technical education as “a form of insurance.”
“I don’t want to be poor again,” she said. “Our mother suffered bankruptcy because our father defaulted on credit cards, and we lost our home. She became ill for an extended period of time and was hospitalized; my brother, sister and I were all sent to foster care in Warren. We were lucky to be kept together with one family for about a year when no one from our family could take us in.”
Later, her mother led a polka band to help pay bills, then attended college.
An old toolbox
Surviving hardship left an indelible impact on Marhevko.
When she was promoted to the “dark side” in management, her grandfather, a tool-and-die maker for Chrysler in Hamtramck for 46 years, didn’t speak to his granddaughter for months. But, eventually, Stephen Marhevko came around. And when he died at age 94, he left her his machinist’s toolbox.
During a chaotic childhood, Marhevko said, there was a stranger named Sue Sigel who showed what it meant to have a stable family. All because Sigel, at age 22, walked past a “Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America” office after work one day as an oral surgeon’s assistant and signed up. A friendship that began for Marhevko at age 9 has endured.
“I thought we looked like sisters at the time,” Sigel, 70, of Grosse Pointe Woods told the Free Press. “I’m very proud of her.”
Words don’t fully capture the impact Sigel had on Marhevko.
“Sue was somebody I could always count on. If she said she was going to be there, she was there. She took me out of the environment I was in. She was a safe place to go,” the manufacturing executive said. “A lot of people blame their upbringing for why they can’t be a success. It doesn’t have to be that way. When you see successful examples, that sets a new pattern.”
Falling into line
Over the years, Marhevko helped transform companies that made automotive tools, gas and diesel engines, rubber and hose products, molds, electronic switches and after-market automotive products.
She and Dauch together led teams that took Evansville, Indiana-based Accuride from bankruptcy to a healthy profit.
Kinnie Luster, a worker at Accuride in Illinois, said it would be a mistake to underestimate Marhevko, his mentor.
“She holds people accountable. She has been gone almost two years, after being with us for seven years. And I still see her results now. She’ll turn your plant around.”
Luster, a former union leader working on the factory floor, switched to a management role with guidance from her.
“She’s a collective-action type person,” he recalled. “If she tells you to do something or something needs to be done, it better be done. She’s very thorough. She would check your boards, check your down time. It wasn’t just about speed. She made sure things were done right.”
Luster, 48, now a foundry cleaning room supervisor, oversees the cleaning of brake drums and rotors for 18-wheelers.
“Jd is very serious about her job. She doesn’t play,” he said. “People replace her, but no one comes close. She is highly respected. She’s just comfortable with everybody. She doesn’t bite her tongue. She’ll call you out. I love that about her. She wants the best product, the best quality. I just think, having been in this field over 20 years, I’ve seen people get a little softer and not hold people accountable. Jd don’t mind telling you in front of whoever. I’ve seen her supervisees, when they didn’t fall in line, well, they fell in line when she got done.”
Marhevko explained, “We make safety products and people had to understand how critical their ability to make the parts correctly was to their customers. If you’ve got a big truck on the freeway behind you, and if he can’t stop because he’s got bad brakes, that’s serious.”
‘Can she actually do it?’
Her alliances run from the assembly line to CEO.
“She’s a different breed of cat. She is extremely smart,” Dauch said. “She almost comes across in an interview as professorial. … First, when we interviewed her, we thought she was really capable. But was she really just theoretical or a practitioner? Is she someone who talks a good game or can she actually do it? I called her previous employer and asked what they thought. He said, ‘You’ll never work with a more accomplished, quality professional in your life.’ And that’s proven to be absolutely true over the past decade.”
He added, “Jd is the most qualified quality expert I’ve ever met in the auto industry that I joined in 1995. I’d put her up against anybody I’ve ever encountered in my 25-plus years in the auto industry in terms of quality systems implementation.”
Marhevko is uniquely humble, colleagues said. It’s disarming.
There’s something about people who come from struggle, Dauch observed.
Dauch grew up in Flint and later moved to Bloomfield Hills. He is the son of the founder of American Axle. He came from a blue-collar family that earned great wealth, and his goal has been, he said, “to save as many good jobs as I can in the countries we have factories — we have 25 factories in 17 countries.”
Arvind Srivastava searched for words to describe Marhevko, noting that Marhevko never talks down to people and seeks ways to build them up.
“She unplugged all the constraints for me. Everybody talks about leadership but very few people actually demonstrate leadership. She is a good human being and an inspiring leader. This combination is rare,” he said.
“Even though I’ve been reporting to her, she’s more of a colleague, not like a boss to subordinate. She never behaves like a boss. That is her style. We have a mutual respect for the skills we possess. And I admire her. Jd is very special, very different. She never uses her authority to get things done. She defines guideposts for complex issues, mostly saying, ‘This is what we need to accomplish.’ Then she leaves it up to me,” said Srivastava, 57, the quality management system director at Delphi.
The two have worked together at three companies — Delphi, Accuride and the German-based SAF Holland, a commercial vehicle supplier. Marhevko is always brought into companies to help rapidly improve operations and performance. At SAF Holland, she was the vice president of operations for the Americas.
“Jd does not exhibit her authority, the position of power. She does not,” Srivastava said. “She works collaboratively with everyone, not bossing people around but taking people’s input and making wise decisions. She is working with the people for the people. That is very powerful. People do notice.”
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Colleagues tell of watching Marhevko freely go onto a factory floor, develop in-depth understanding of the process, and talk with workers about waste and performance in a way that doesn’t upset anyone.
“When Jd walks the floor, operators recognize her,” Srivastava said.
Marhevko was just the second woman to serve on the executive team at Accuride, notes Mary Blair, senior vice president and chief supply chain officer at the global manufacturer.
“She doesn’t care about the glass ceiling. She busts through those all the time,” Blair said. “She’s that light who mentors other women, who understands operational manufacturing with high quality standards and who gets the job done.”
Executives at most companies feel pressure to focus on financials, Marhevko said. “That’s why they hire us, operations and quality guys, to bring these safety risks to the forefront, so they can see the full picture and make a balanced decision.”
Marhevko says she’s far from perfect. Don’t believe the hype.
While working for one company years ago, she was warned she would be let go with an upcoming acquisition. Marhevko rushed out to find employment, failing to adequately research the job or negotiate good benefits and then bought a house to top off a series of panic-driven decisions. Lessons learned. Never again.
“Being me, I go into caveman mode. I must have a job. I want to provide for my family,” she said.
“My 20-year-old is on the autism spectrum. If he talks to a person a day, we’re lucky,” she said. Her son is a math major with a minor in Japanese and her daughter is earning a master’s degree in linguistics, both at Eastern Michigan University with academic scholarships.
Marhevko teaches manufacturing and operations at the University of Michigan on her vacation days. Her phone gets turned off only for church and volleyball.
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Shock and awe
Nationally, Marhevko is among industry superstars now.
She is one of 15 women just named to the inaugural class of the Women in Manufacturing Hall of Fame.
“They are true trailblazers whose work has created opportunity for countless other women,” said Allison Gralis, president of the Independence, Ohio-based Women in Manufacturing, in an August news release.
The winners, submitted by industry peers and selected by a panel, include:
- Kim Beardsley, John Deere (retired)
- Dianne Chong, Boeing (retired)
- Melanie Cook, GE Appliances
- Susan Elkington, Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky
- Vanessa Li, Novelis
- Sonita Lontoh, HP
“I’m just stunned,” Marhevko said. “A few of these women have assisted the White House. I mean, I have visited the White House.”
She rarely touts her own credentials. She is one of only 14 people to win international recognition as the winner of the coveted Shainin Medal, which honors creative approaches applied to the improvement of quality or reliability.
“If you’re building stuff, Jd is the most underrated talent you’re ever going to find,” said J.R. McGee, who has known Marhevko more than a decade. “She is a servant leader who gets her followers aligned. If people don’t have a skill set, she teaches it. She leaves no one behind.”
Marhevko can go cross-culture and work with employees in Russia, Turkey, China, Germany, France, Mexico and Canada, he said.
“If I look at the contacts in my phone, I’ve got a little over 8,000 names. I know a lot of people around the world and I’ve done business in 55 countries,” said McGee, 64, an executive coach based in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, who trained everyone from C-suite executives to fighter pilots for the U.S. Air Force and Navy.
“Jd is one of the very top people I’ve ever been associated with. She has worked so hard behind the scenes to finally be recognized for her true talent and capabilities,” he said. “I’ll be honest, this honor is absolutely deserved and overdue.”
Speaking from London, during her last Dephi business trip, Marhevko said she is sincerely grateful for the interview.
“It’s truly an honor to be recognized by the Detroit Free Press,” she said, in response to the attention inspired by the award.
“I used to deliver the newspaper,” she said. “I pedaled my bike for years delivering the newspaper. To have this come around is huge for me. All my early morning bike rides in the winter. We had our German shepherd — Koa — pull a sled.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Mount Clemens native turns around auto plants globally, becoming superstar in her field