December 18, 2020: Jimmy Stewart, the Exide veteran who joined the battery firm fresh from high school in the mid-70s and rose to become a senior director for global equipment, facility and tooling engineering, has joined MAC Engineering as vice president of sales and marketing.
He starts in the new year.
Stewart has an experience almost second to none in understanding how battery manufacturing works. This is quite literally from the early production steps such as grid casting through to formation — he was the first person in Exide to come up with the then novel and patented idea of linking control of the rectifier from mechanical timers and computerisation — and then out of the door to consumers.
“We’ve been looking for someone like him for some time,” says Doug Bornas, president at MAC. “We recognized that as part of a new business model we needed to have in-depth plant production experience — that’s a very specialized knowledge — from an industry expert. And for that to be represented by someone our industry has a lot of respect for. And that’s what Jimmy has in abundance.
“As soon as I knew that he was leaving Exide after its latest restructuring I leapt at the opportunity of hiring him.”
Stewart, has in fact known MAC Engineering for some 35 years, having a strong relationship with Mike Tole, past president and part owner. He says he can even remember when Bornas first joined the firm. (It was 1997.)
Stewart’s lifetime in Exide started in August 1975 when his father, who worked at the Exide plant in Frankfort, Indiana, helped him get a job as an assembly line technical assistant. He had just left high school and admits that he had an insatiable interest in just “tinkering with things”.
He had also had some practical experience which allowed him to fit in immediately.
“At the age of 15 I was working evenings and weekends as an apprentice in the maintenance department. Back in those days there were no work safety laws like we have today and I had my head and hands into 480 volt 3 phase electrical cabinets and maintained hydraulic presses. I look back today and say by the grace of God I didn’t electrocute myself!”
It was a period of great change in battery manufacturing and Stewart, already aware of the new programmable logic controllers developed as Allen-Bradley PLC (later known as Rockwell Automation), managed to introduce the first system on a line in Frankfort.
Initial management enthusiasm in the head office in Reading Pennsylvania was tempered with scepticism.
“They just assumed that the manufacturing lines would need to break down with the previous air logic system,” says Stewart. “So when it didn’t they thought that something was wrong! They had a real fear of electronics.”
Eventually, however, sense prevailed. Stewart was charged with introducing the system across all the Exide plants.
His life as a travelling engineer had started.
He reckons that from then on, or at least until Covid recently, he has spent around 75% of his time on the road or on a plane.
His career was to rise with changes across the firm which quickly realised his value. Early on, Exide had sent him to night school at Perdue University and this continued throughout his time. In his late 20s Exide sponsored him to obtain his first degree, a bachelor of science in electrical engineering. This was followed a decade later by his masters.
As a key figure in orchestrating change at the individual plant level, his responsibilities increased with other changes in Exide. Specifically, it was its decision to source much of the work that had been done inside the firm to external companies. Although many of his duties were still being in charge of building and designing equipment it also meant that he was exposed to the latest manufacturing trends and — more importantly — evaluating them.
In the late 1980s he managed a team of engineers charged with, among other things, setting up a factory in Hays, Kansas that would make sealed lead acid batteries following the joint venture Exide had made with Yuasa.
“We started with a shell of a factory and left behind a fully working battery plant. Effectively we had to take the technology from Japan and adapt it to a US setting,” he recalls. “Because of government restrictions we had to build the equipment from scratch in the US.”
This was to directly lead on to what he reckons has been some of the most interesting work in his career.
Starting in the early 1990s, this consisted of setting up new battery factories from scratch. He was a key figure in designing and setting up two greenfield car battery plants in Russia worth around $180 million. Further work included another project from scratch in Uzbekistan, and work in Dubai, Canada, India and elsewhere.
“I look back with pride and the greatest satisfaction on this part of my life and work,” he says.
From 2000 his work was to support the integration of the GNB acquisition — sometimes dubbed an acquisition too far as it later drove the firm into Chapter 11 bankruptcy — into Exide’s business.
As a side note to history, Stewart was part of the initial team sent to value the GNB business. “We said the price was way over-valued, at the time,” he says. “But the next CEO saw this as a way of getting back into our previous industrial division (which had earlier been acquired by EnerSys) and our voices were over-ruled.”
He is also a veteran of the multiple changes of chief executive at Exide.
“I’ve worked for more CEOs than I’ve got fingers on my hands,” he says. He survived the culls that Exide made in the first two episodes of Chapter 11 bankruptcy but the latest re-organization — sometimes called Chapter 33 by those in the industry — left him high and dry as the firm’s Americas operations was split from its European and Asian business.
Stewart says he is now looking forward to the next chapter of his life.
“I’ve known MAC and its products for the past 35 years. I recognise their quality, expertise and how well they are made,” he says.
“Part of my job will be to be responsible for communicating with customers in the US and Canada in relation to sales, service and support. I’ll also support our global agents, Sorfin Yoshimura, and their customers throughout the rest of the world.”
But he also sees his lifetime of design expertise adding to MAC’s value proposition.
“MAC is a company that is continually seeking to advance its product range. I think we will have exciting times ahead as we move to lighter weight, higher quality batteries.”
Stewart’s rise from a technical assistant on an assembly line to a senior director at Exide has been a meteoric one. The next phase of his career could be as exciting as his first.