When Brian Norko, senior vice president – commercial business operations, NGK Spark Plugs (U.S.A.) Inc., interviewed for the management trainee program at Federal-Mogul, he says he “didn’t know anything about manufacturing and … wasn’t a car enthusiast.” That didn’t slow him down when it came to carving out an incredibly successful career in automotive. Now with roughly 35 years under his belt, Norko says he still lives by the guidance he was given by the mentors he had while just starting out.
“Fortunately, I had an angel in Southfield, Michigan, who was keeping his eye out for me,” said Norko. “His name was Don Thorpe, God rest his soul. He was the national sales manager for the sales division that called on NAPA and every time I would come back to Southfield, he would always look me up and we’d have lunch or have dinner. He wanted me in the sales group. He got his wish and I went into to NAPA sales for Federal-Mogul. I spent some time there and then I went into heavy-duty sales, and then into distribution. Then, they brought me back to be in finance. So, the first eight years, I really got a good dose of being a management trainee in different functional areas from sales to distribution and finance.”
Norko credits another important mentor in his career as helping him learn the key to being a successful sales professional.
“Another strong mentor was Bob Show, God rest his soul as well,” said Norko. “Bob was the national sales manager of heavy-duty sales at Federal-Mogul and really taught [me] the foundation that I still use with my group. The first thing he said to me when I took the job up in Minnesota in heavy-duty sales was, ‘You know, Brian, I really don’t care about writing big orders here. The next three or four months, what I care about is you get to know your customers and establishing a very good relationship with your customers. When I come back up in four months, I’m going to talk to some people and see if they know you,’ and he did.”
The experience Norko gained while working in a variety of roles in the Federal-Mogul management trainee program made him a firm believer in the value not only of relationships, but in having a wide variety of skills as an aftermarket executive. When speaking to students about potential career paths in the aftermarket, this is something Norko is passionate about.
“When I speak to classes or I speak to students, the one thing they ask me is how can they find that type of job, and why is it important? And what I always come back to as I deal with this today at NGK is an organization can’t have all specialists. They can, but it may make the process of strategy or problem-solving a little bit more cumbersome or time-consuming than having maybe 30-40% of your population that has spent time in sales, marketing, manufacturing, distribution, finance, etc. By having that background, those people are able to help others understand who the customer is and, and maybe some of the problems or challenges they have with the organization.
“I mentioned Bob Show earlier. Bob always said there’s really two functions of a company from his viewpoint. His two focuses of a company were to get a customer – which if you work for a company like NGK or a company that has a lot of strong brands and high market share, that’s pretty easy to do because people want your product. Sometimes the more difficult thing to do is to keep a customer,” Norko says. “When you’re trying to keep a customer and you have people working in your team who are just not sales people, but also come from the distribution side, the manufacturing side, the finance side, they’re able to bring solutions to help you keep that customer. So, I think it’s really important to have some generalists within your team and not all specialists. That’s a message I share here at NGK all the time as I try to get people to move around within the organization just to become stronger. And really it makes the career more interesting. I’ve loved my career for the last 30-plus years. I wouldn’t change it for anything with the experience that I had and and the people that I’ve met.”
In this episode, Bill and Brian also dive into:
- 8:29 Mentors;
- 10:45 Identify the need and provide the solution;
- 12:10 The value of brands and quality products;
- 12:15 The value of strong brands in making life easier in sales;
- 14:35 The technician shortage;
- 20:30 AMN Drivetime’s NEW “Lightning Round”