Southwire’s Fernando Esquivel on balancing people and process

The organization’s Chief People and Culture Officer charts his journey toward developing a formula for business success with employees as its heart.

Fernando Esquivel, EVP, Chief People and Culture Officer, Southwire

As one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cable and wire, Southwire likes to call itself one of the largest companies you’ve never heard of. The products it makes are crucial to American infrastructure and the tech industry, as are the people who make the business run. With decades of leadership roles under his belt, Southwire Chief People and Culture Officer Fernando Esquivel understands this well, and his strategies are shaped by a strong sense of the ways people drive productivity.

But Esquivel attributes the beginning of his people-first business acumen to his time at a university in Mexico serving as president of the Student Association of Mechanical and Electrical Engineers. While he knew about mechanical and electrical engineering, he also noticed the curriculum didn’t have much to offer on interpersonal management skills.

“I had my best friends around me — a group of eight people that are still very good friends — but there was conflict,” Esquivel remembers. “That’s when I first realized that I needed to learn more about the human aspect of management. Because at the end of the day, it was in my face when my best friends were dealing with conflict. In order to make a decision, there’s no formula for that. It’s dialogue and it’s understanding where everyone’s speaking from. That was my first realization that I needed to get more into the people space.”

Esquivel shared more about his journey ahead of his keynote panel at Ragan’s Employee Experience Conference in Nashville this August.

Exposure to the business of numbers 

In 1988, Esquivel was invited to apply for an internship with P&G. While mechanical and electrical engineers normally focused on manufacturing, Esquivel told them that his main interest was personnel, followed by research and development. That caught their attention.

Fernando Esquivel, EVP, Chief People and Culture Officer, Southwire

At that time, engagement surveys were still in an incubation state, and there was one that was taking place in Mexico,” recalled Esquivel. “As an engineer, you solve for problems, so they gave me a stack of papers. We didn’t have computers, and we had to find a way to pretty much account for all of that in the fastest way, then analyze the information and come up with trends and graphs.”

Esquivel eventually joined a rotational program as a full-time employee, piloting a program that provided him with four months in training and development, four months in industrial relationships, four months in total rewards, then time in recruiting, before getting to choose where he wanted to go.

This was the first time that Esquivel was exposed to the world of business through the lens of numbers. He credits good teachers and mentors, who trusted him to look at things differently, empowering him to grow and succeed across these disciplines.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m an engineer. If I don’t go to the manufacturing side of the equation and only spend time in administration, I will never get to know the experience of being an engineer.’”

This ultimately meant taking a move that was not lateral, but organizationally downward. It also meant that Esquivel had a chance to experience the business as a line manager without his tie, portfolio and shiny shoes. “I took my safety shoes, my helmet, my jeans and my polo shirt and learned from operations and production,” he said.

“Through this experience, I learned very fast that you need to win the hearts and minds of people. How do you do that? Walking the aisles, getting on the line and learning the job yourself. Once you start being a part of the team … gee, I mean, it’s the best thing that can happen to you. It’s hearts and minds.”

The transformation process

That experience on the floor taught Esquivel what a production environment is all about, something he considers one of the best decisions he’s ever made. All these years later at Southwire, he’s comfortable being in the plant and knowing what to look for.

“I know about productive maintenance,” explained Esquivel. “I know about operations. I know about downtime and, obviously, safety. That’s one of the reasons I’m at Southwire. The transformation process is fascinating to me. The raw materials go from one door and the final product goes through the other side.”

During his years as a line manager at P&G, Esquivel helped operators learn what they need to run at target efficiency percentages.

“We had meetings and for some, they didn’t understand the formula,” he remembered. “So, I started spending time with my team on the math, the fractions and drawing the connection to the difference in outputting eight cases per minute versus six cases per minute. The pivotal thing that happened is that it went beyond the job and the target production numbers — some of them even started asking me questions about the homework of their kids.”

This created a connection that also improved things from a production standpoint.

“I was supporting them as they were supporting the supervisor,” said Esquivel. “It’s all through people. And once your people trust you, it’s a different game.”

Looking ahead while across the region

As P&G began implementing total productive maintenance, Esquivel was invited to join a Mexico-based team that trained facilitators across the Latin America (LATAM) region. At just 24 years old, it brought him to places like Brazil, Venezuela, Panama and Costa Rica.

That was a very significant as part of my professional formation and learning about consistency because P&G kept the same standard no matter the country,” he said. Planning these trips to deliver on objectives taught him the importance of looking ahead.

For that, you need to see several quarters ahead of you,” explained Esquivel.

“You need to understand the national holidays in each country, the plan and what you are solving for What do we want to achieve — increase efficiencies, maximize our throughput, and then do it within the boundaries of safety. The goal is to be proactive versus reactive. You get all the business variables, but then you have to build a plan on how to really deliver over time in a multi-country region.”

Esquivel carried this with him when he joined Microsoft as the LATAM HR Director in 2001. When he became the Asia Pacific HR Director in 2004, moving to Asia immersed him in new and more diverse cultural perspectives.

“You have all the religions, vegetarians to beef lovers, Victorian football to baseball and everything in between,” he said. “I was exposed to a microcosm of the world.”

Growing the region was an exercise in consistency and staying close with business leaders. Esquivel underscored the partnership he had with the CEO, CFO and General Counsel across different regions as key to honing business acumen while driving people and culture strategy. These relationships contributed to his ability to speak the language of numbers, especially understanding P&L and the balance sheet.

A formula for success

As an engineer, Esquivel has a formula for success:

(A+I+E) x P = S

“A” is anticipation, “I” is innovation, “E” is execution.

“How much can I anticipate?” Esquivel regularly asks. “We do this all the time since I’ve come to Southwire. What’s coming our way in the next two quarters? I like to talk about what’s going to happen in Q3 during Q2, and so on.”

When Esquivel talks about innovation, he focuses on challenging the status quo.

“It’s built in me because I have been provided with the opportunity to ask, ‘Why are we doing it this way? And how can we do it differently?’” he said. “Sometimes it’s innovations, sometimes it’s simplifications.”

These are all multiplied by “P” for passion, because Esquivel believes you have to love what you do.

“My formula for happiness would be exactly the same, but at the end I’d add ‘QR’ for the quality of relationships,” he said.

Applying the lessons every day

Ultimately, Southwire trusting Esquivel to lead on culture is also about his trust for the organization, a testament to the power of business as a universal language and a unifier during a time when there aren’t many easy answers.

“It also speaks about the quality of the company that I’m part of because they work with me similarly,” Esquivel said. “They open their arms and are open to listen.”

Esquivel understands that he has a role to play, just like the person working next door and the person working downstairs.

“How do you go from that moment of strategizing to implement and deploy? In the middle, you have to activate hearts and minds, he said.

“Meet the people where they are by understanding their needs and what they are looking for, communicate yours and ask for help. It’s the four Cs — connect, communicate, collaborate and celebrate.”

Join Esquivel in conversation with other C-suite leaders this August at Ragan’s Employee Experience Conference in Nashville.

Justin Joffe is the editorial director and editor-in-chief at Ragan Communications.  Follow him on LinkedIn.

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