Mike Gorey: An Established Leader Empowering People to Step Up

Mike Gorey, CEO, Propex GeoSolutions
Mike Gorey | CEO | Propex GeoSolutions

The most undervalued trait in leadership is Humility. Humility is a trait that is often overlooked in business leadership, but the truth is that it acts as a source of great strength. After all, leadership is all about empowering others. Mike Gorey has adopted this approach aptly since the start of his career. With his commitment to respecting e very individual, leading with humility, and creating healthy teamwork chemistry, Mike has developed a company culture at Propex GeoSolutions that empowers all its employees. He took the reins as Propex’s CEO in April 2011. His roll-up-your sleeves leadership style has transformed the organization into a market-centric company with a bright future.

Building from the Scratch

Ten years into his career, Mike was offered the opportunity to be in operations in Des Moines, IA with Bridgestone/Firestone. This plant was well known for mismanagement and poor labor relations with the unionized workforce. The board had put this plant on the closure list, and two months after taking the operations position, his boss suddenly retired. At the age of 34, Mike was now in charge of Firestone’s largest and most inefficient plant, which produced agricultural products. He spent the next three months gathering elements for the “Des Moines Improvement Plan,” that shifted the business to a market-driven focus. One of the first and most critical initiatives was team disco very. Giving the team context to what they already knew was key to earning their trust and reenergizing the culture in Des Moines.

Within 24 months, Mike along with his team created the most profitable segment of Bridgestone/Firestone and within the next five years, the entire company moved toward the model it implemented. Not only did the turnaround yield the company’s best operating margins, but it also saved more than 1,600 jobs. Learning the power of problem-solving through his experience in Des Moines made him realize he liked the “turnaround” work, and he seemed to be good at it. Bridgestone/Firestone also recognized this skill, initiating the next of what would become several turnaround projects throughout the organization. Some of these included implementing a common IT platform and ERP system and guiding a labor settlement with the Steel Workers Union.

Concluding the labor settlement, Mike flew out of the negotiation and was met by corporate Japanese management who tasked him with navigating the company out of the Ford Explorer/Firestone recall crisis. Return the company to stability after recalling 6.5 million Firestone tires after safety authorities linked them to fatal accidents was something that many thought would not be possible. By reorganizing the America’s operations and restructuring the business into four standalone businesses, we were able to obtain a $1.3 billion tax refund from the government of Japan. This facilitated Mike and team to return the company to profit a year later.

Successfully navigating this crisis afforded him his next opportunity to turnaround a $1.5 Billion segment of the company. Mike was now the CEO of Firestone Diversified Products, which was a new division of the company thanks to recall related restructuring.

His next opportunity was fixing the tire business unit as President of Consumer Tire with Bridgestone Americas. Bridgestone had invested huge capital in Firestone, but the consumer products had been losing money for 21 years. Now, with 30 years of experience – the last 20 working on transforming the business – Mike had the opportunity to show his skills directly seated in the company’s most valued business.

Consumer Tire was the company’s gem, but despite high-profile promotion efforts, the division was unable to produce a profit. The management team was very good, but they had a poor game plan. Mike has learned that good people with a bad plan will not yield results. He and his team replaced the existing market share approach and focused on optimizing profit. They took advantage of falling raw material prices, closed an inefficient plant and held pricing on products. They sold less volume, but increased their margins. In the end, Consumer Tire not only made money, but improved profits by $160 million year over year.

After a 25-year career at Bridgestone, Mike decided to pursue the CEO position at Propex. During his time at Bridgestone/Firestone, specifically with the Diversified Products division, he was able to appreciate the world of contractors, product specifications and project work. He liked the construction business and the role of products in solving contractor challenges. Experience with the construction and fabric business were instantly beneficial. Plus, Mike was familiar with Propex because it was a supplier to Firestone building products.

Coming from a much larger company to a mid-sized organization was a bit disorienting. Size did matter. Mistakes were more impactful on the business. Discovery of what Mike didn’t know, and the need to learn about the Propex company culture, took time and patience. However, the process that he gleaned from six prior transformations proved applicable.

Innovation at the Forefront

Innovation is at the roots of Propex’s history. In 1940 Patchogue Plymouth Mills, a lace and curtain manufacturer, developed new weaving yarns and backing for the carpet industry. Thus, the path for Propex was forged. While the company’s name has changed several times over the last century, one thing has remained the same – its drive for innovation.

Propex has developed various means to achieve strength properties for its geotextiles with the least amount of input materials. Results are not only the preservation of raw material usage, but also lower freight costs to its customers. Its erosion control solutions have been tested and approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, recognized as a Best Management Practice (BMP) by the EPA, and Propex is the only manufacturer of High Performance Turf Reinforcement Mat (HPTRM) to have its carbon footprint verified by an independent organization.

New products developments have been recognized by the Industrial Fabrics Foundation (IFF) and the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI), receiving awards in both 2018 and 2019.

The company provides highly valued intelligence to its customers utilizing its holistic approach to market development and technical selling. Propex developed MILO (Market, Influence, Lead, Optimize) to provide unmatched customer support. This includes developing innovative products, but also provides customers with technical support, market research and marketing. This method has been proven to increase leads and improve project closing rates.

A Defining Moment

Mike’s Journey was full of undulating moments, and his resilience has brought him this far. He says, “Coming into something new, there will always be resistance. Your reputation can proceed you, but it may not be your true reputation. If you really want to make change, you can’t do it like a bully. You have to have empathy. Learn your people, learn your culture. Forge a path built on the company’s strengths and create the competitive advantage. There is always a defining moment when you know if things will work out or not.”

Building team and facilitating team discovery, Vulnerability, Being Fearless, Staying True to the Vision, Empowering Others, Flexibility and Humility are some of the essential traits Mike believes every leader should possess.

Balancing Employee’s Health and the Company’s Financial Health

Propex is part of the transportation and infrastructure industry, so it is deemed essential, thus limiting the impact from the pandemic. The health and safety of its workforce has always been its top priority. Propex’s attention to company-wide safety has earned world class recognition. Navigating through the pandemic has brought unexpected challenges, but Propex has strived to uphold its commitment to its teammates’ wellbeing. Facemasks and social distancing practices are followed throughout the organization. The company has equipped its team to host virtual meetings, increased bandwidth to support those working from home, and increased cleaning and sanitation protocols. Propex has even offered COVID-19 antibody screenings to its staff. Central to Mike’s responsibilities is balancing employee’s health and the financial health of the Propex business. Financial flexibility/agility is the second priority.

Mike states that being agile without being emotional, allows one to address the unforeseen rationally. When the pandemic became a reality last March, contingency planning was undertaken in the event demand collapsed. Propex’s market demand was altered in its favor as PPE products forced other industries to substitute their materials with the company’s materials. This year required an aggressive effort to attract nontraditional business, which is successfully doubled in 2020. This diversified business helps keep production up when other segments are soft.

Focused on Growth

Currently, Mike is focusing his energy on building out the Propex franchise. The company is in an industry where branding is undervalued, yet it believes that building its brand is essential to future growth, and Propex is in growth mode. Through the development of cutting-edge technologies and systems, it has earned the position as industry innovator. Propex is also recognized by the quality of its products and the customer care provided by its team. Even its products that are considered commodities mean something more because they are connected to the franchise.

Resistance to Change is Universal

In his advice to upcoming business leaders aspiring to make an impact on the world, Mike states, “It’s imperative to have relevant, effective strategy, however, don’t marry your strategy because the market changes. Know your business, know your market and customers; most of all know your people. You have to be willing to adapt. Resistance to change is universal, and will be throughout time. Passion endures time. You have to like what you are doing. If it’s not fun, you should be doing something else. Look for mentors who allow you to learn from their achievements and their set-backs.”