Chris Fenton is the plant manager for TRW at the
Eastern Seaboard Industrial Estate. He is American with a fresh faced,
“well scrubbed” look about him but was certainly not born with a
silver spoon in his mouth. He is also a man on the way up.
Chris was destined to be in the motor industry. He was
born in Pontiac, Michigan, 20 miles outside Detroit. His father worked for
General Motors as an assembler in the truck and bus division, and Chris
was a middle child in a family which included four brothers and one
sister. For this family, the annual treat was to load up the camper and
head off on family vacations. “I think we saw 45 of the 50 states in
kids was to become an important factor for Chris as he grew up. “My
parents could not afford to educate us all,” so he began working in
after hours jobs when he was still in high school. Along with this rather
mature attitude for a young man came his decision of where he was heading.
“I knew I was going into engineering from 7th and 8th grades, although I
didn’t know what type initially.” He eventually went for mechanical
engineering, liking things he could touch, as opposed to electrical
engineering, more of a ‘don’t touch’ discipline.
He went to Oakland University, a small campus, as he
could not afford to go to one of the big name universities. He lived at
home under his parents’ roof, but funding his own way through his course
by continuing working. This meant that he took five years, as he would
have to take time off to build up the bank account. He did not regret this
or feel that he was disadvantaged. “I just accepted that was how things
were going to be.”
So in 1986 he graduated with his B.Sc. in Mechanical
Engineering and joined Bosch, the German based multinational company
involved in the automotive business. Again, Chris showed an ability to
think ahead, having decided that being multilingual would be a key to
future development, thus influencing his choice of corporations he would
work for. He had always wanted to learn German, and where better than in a
German company. He says his German is “around 80%.”
He accepted a manufacturing engineer’s job in South
Carolina, because it meant a trip to Germany. He spent two years overseas
designing ABS (anti-lock braking systems) assembly lines, with a brief
trip in the middle back to the States to get married to his wife Kristine.
She was a girl he had met on a Dale Carnegie course, during which he made
friends and finally influenced her to marry him!
On their return to America he was asked to move to the
Juarez Bosch plant in Mexico to install his own design ABS production
lines there. They chose to live in El Paso, where Chris border hopped
daily. He also hopped into the University of Texas and did his MBA, and in
his spare time picked up a little Spanish, “but I’m only about 20%.”
However, in 1994 he left Bosch and joined Kelsey-Hayes.
“It was a chance to go back to Detroit in a manufacturing role, as well
as being in a position as an area manager.” And where was this
Kelsey-Hayes plant which Chris Fenton would join? It was in Fenton,
that’s where! Chris laughed when he said, “I just had to work in that
plant. My first daughter, born when I was working for Bosch, was called
The Fenton plant was the largest producer of ABS
systems in the world and he enjoyed the two and a half years he spent
there with his namesake. However, it was at this time that a friend who
worked for Kelsey-Hayes in Kuala Lumpur contacted him. They needed a plant
manager in Thailand. This person had to know about Bosch products and be
able to speak German. The job was tailor-made for Chris Fenton.
He came over for a quick four day ‘look-see’. “I
didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be tin shacks, but this
(the Eastern Seaboard Industrial Estate) could be Europe or North
America.” He brought Kristine out to see it as well. “If we were going
to say no, it was going to be an informed no, but this was an opportunity
to see this part of the world and I had the itch to go overseas again.”
He took the position and since then has seen corporate
takeovers and mergers result in his now working for TRW, a firm he takes
pride in describing in this its 100th year of operation.
Chris claims that the Thailand experience has had far
reaching effects on him. “You develop tolerance, working with so many
nationalities.” For him, success professionally does mean doing
something you enjoy doing. “I like what I do. I’m learning. It is a
challenge and I love to work hard.”
There is no doubt that he is happy in his job. “I
love (manufacturing) operations. Factories are where things happen, where
you can see the results of your work.”
He advises the youth of today to be extremely flexible
and to take all opportunities presented. With a global outlook you end up
with friends all over the world. “Be willing to take a risk.” After
all, look what it did for Chris Fenton!
His hobbies are mainly for keeping fit and are solo
pursuits. These include marathons and golf. “I am a team player, but I
choose sports for a loner. I am individualistic.” For example, next week
Chris is even mountain climbing in Malaysia.
Make no mistake about it; Chris Fenton is a man on the
way up - both physically and corporate-wise!