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Interview with Ronald J. Smith, President & CEO of SMA

April 21, 2016

Nestled in the cul-de-sac of a Chesapeake, VA industrial park, Sumitomo Machinery Corporation of America (SMA), part of Sumitomo Drive Technologies, captures its visitors as they enter the lush grounds of the company's headquarters and largest US manufacturing facility. SMA is part of Sumitomo Heavy Industries, Ltd. (SHI), a $6.6 billion operation based in Japan, which is a subsidiary of Sumitomo Corporation-a conglomerate involved in manufacturing, media and finance.

Sumitomo Drive Technologies manufacturers Power Transmission Control products such as gearboxes, gearmotors and speed reducers for industrial markets, including Mining, Food & Beverage and Material Handling. The Cyclo® 6000 speed reducer with its cycloidal design is one of its signature products, known for its reliability and operational efficiency.

2016 marks the 50th Year Anniversary for SMA in the U.S. Since opening its doors, SMA has expanded into Canada and Latin America, with Mexico, Brazil and Chile making up the lions share. As SMA celebrates 50 years, Ron Smith, CEO and President, celebrates 25 years with the company. He became the President & COO in 2004 and assumed the role of CEO in 2007.

We sat down with Mr. Smith to ask him why the company was able to withstand the Great Recession (even expanding facilities during the tough times), why it has stayed so committed to its people and why it's been able to vigorously differentiate itself from the competition with continuous innovation. Most of all, we wanted to know how Sumitomo has thrived for 50 years, growing profitably and producing high quality products while maintaining market independence. We found Mr. Smith engaging, passionate about SMA's past, and eager to talk about the future.


Tell me about Sumitomo and how the company has evolved over time-

The humble beginnings began with two Japanese expats in New Jersey in a small leased facility. Shortly after hiring local engineers and office staff, they targeted industries where traditional gear reducers were problematic. With the capabilities of the unique patented Cyclo®, it quickly gained a notable reputation for world class quality, reliability and long life, even in the most severe environments such as saw mills and steel plants. With demand growing, the company signed distributor agreements and focused on creating partnerships with customers across the United States.

What makes SMA standout from the competition?

The people make Sumitomo stand apart. That may sound like a cliché, but attracting and retaining the best people with strong personal character and passion has been the key to Sumitomo's success. We can teach individuals the necessary skills to excel at a job, but character and passion cannot be taught. 

It's these kind of people that can differentiate a company and this is definitely true at SMA. I'm sure you can see that I really value these personal characteristics and they support one of our core values which is respect for human dignity. Respect goes a long way to motivating your work force and creating customer loyalty.



Why is community involvement-such as the Foodbank-important to you and to SMA?

To be truly successful in business, you need to consider all of your stakeholders in the business, the employees, customers, shareholders, and the community and make sure that you are addressing all of their needs. Sumitomo employees wanted to support a local organization that serves our neighbors. The ability to provide a basic need such as food is a way to give something back to the community. It has a direct impact. This particular cause holds a special place for me as well because as one of eight children growing up food was scarce. The incredible generosity of our employees helps ensure that our neighbors do not go to bed hungry.

Growing up did you ever imagine being a CEO of a company like Sumitomo Machinery Corporation of America?

In one word, no. [laughter]. I was always an ambitious kid, but I figured out at a fairly young age that working would be in my future. At age 15, I got my first job as a dishwasher. It went from hard work to praise, then praise to hard work. It was a cycle that pushed me. Plus I was lucky to be surrounded by people who mentored me. I really learned to look at people who were successful and emulate them. Mentorship is ingrained in our culture.

Who are your role models?

Honestly, I have so many. I definitely do not look at celebrities or public people as role models per se.  I look up to and admire good people, everyday people who are honest, modest, hard-working, and who take personal responsibility for themselves. Just "good citizens." That's what I strive to be.

How has being a father influenced your outlook on life and approach to the company?

I have three daughters and it has truly been the most joyous experience of my life. Being a father had a tremendous influence on my approach because it was the best leadership training I ever received. My wife and I were twenty years old when my first daughter was born, and then we had our second daughter two years later. Shortly thereafter, I became a single father, at the ripe age of 24. It was a life changing event. Life became very serious. With a lot of help from family, I was able to raise my daughters. I eventually remarried and had my third daughter. The skills I developed throughout those experiences served me throughout my life-patience, consistency, fairness, and telling them ‘why'. I saw that I got much better results by not only telling them my expectations, but explaining the reasons behind them. It was great training for this job-learning to lead by example.

What does the future hold for SMA?

No one can predict the future, but I believe the future for this company is bright. The company is financially strong. At around 600 people, we work together throughout our many facilities to serve our customers. We maintain our strong benefit plan, keep security for families, and continue to be good community members. It's been an honor and a privilege to hold the position as long as I have and I look forward to the future of the company.

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