Jeff Cruse takes over as top leader for Novelis’ Oswego Works
By Lou Sorendo
Novelis in Oswego is officially on Cruse control. On May 1 Jeff Cruse was named plant manager at Novelis in Oswego — formerly Alcan— an aluminum recycling and rolling facility that employs nearly 1,200 workers.
Cruse, an employee of Novelis for over three decades, started his storied career on the shop floor.
“I was out there sweeping floors. That’s how I got started,” he said.
“I thought this would be a temporary gig then I’d move on,” he added.
Obviously, that did not happen.
Cruse continued building his career by joining the recycling/remelt unit in Berea, Kentucky, casting ingots for the aluminum coils.
After a successful run in recycling/remelt, Cruse got the opportunity to move into an environmental technician’s role. Later, he earned the opportunity to become the environmental, health and safety (EHS) manager of the Berea plant, eventually moving into the post of recycle EHS manager at the Berea plant as well as the facility in Greensboro, Georgia.
Cruse would then move into a Lean Six Sigma role, which involved developing continuous improvement initiatives. Following that role, he spent the next 18 months in Atlanta, Oswego and in Kingston before he returned to Berea as the operations leader.
After two years in that position, he was promoted to plant manager in Berea and then transitioned to the lead role in Kingston for about two years before arriving in the Port City.
Through it all, Cruse shares his appreciation for Alcan and Novelis: “I’ve been fortunate to work with, and for, an excellent employer.”
Throughout Cruse’s career, there were opportunities to relocate or do something different.
“I have the belief — as many people at Novelis have — that success of the company starts with our people, period. If our people are not safe, I’m not sure how successful we can be after that.”
“But all of that has to match up with your personal life,” he said. “Before I was willing to relocate or do those kinds of things, I wanted my kids to be out on their own and doing their own thing.” Along with his wife, Kathy, Cruse was willing to relocate to Kingston and back to the United States once their three children were grown and out of the house.
Jeff and Kathy have three children: Jordan, 28, lives in Birmingham, Alabama; Logan, 25, resides in Huntsville, also in Alabama; and daughter Kourtney, 23, lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
When he is not involved at the plant, he enjoys spending time with Kathy. “We try to maintain an active and healthy life style by working out and eating healthy. We especially love the outdoors, which is all the more reason I’m proud to work at a company committed to the environment,” he said.
Cruse, 55, is familiar with Oswego, as he has visited the plant multiple times over his career.
In Oswego, the population is about 18,000, with a plant size approaching 1,200. “There is a unique dynamic here,” he said. “We have the opportunity to touch a vast majority of the Oswego community in some way. It’s significant and we take this responsibility very seriously — we are committed to making a positive impact on our community.”
Another key differentiator for the Oswego plant is that it is the only wholly owned, fully integrated Novelis plant in North America. Products are made from scrap metal or raw material to the final stages at Oswego Works, whereas other plants in the country do portions of what the Port City facility does. “It’s a smaller type community, which I love,” he said.
Cruse said he applies the same leadership principles and strategies today that he did in the past.
He noted the Kingston plant is a union facility, whereas the Berea plant is a highly team-based non-union plant. Oswego is a non-union plant.
“People are people, and people want to be treated fairly, and they want to feel trusted and valued,” he said.
“For me, it’s about engaging the workforce. It doesn’t matter whether it’s union or non-union — people just want to know they are making a difference,” he said.
“Oswego is a big player in a big pond. If things are not going right here in Oswego, that impact is felt throughout North America and throughout the entire company.”
Cruse characterizes himself as a supportive leader.
“I think 1,200 people are a lot smarter than one person or 10 people. For me, it’s about giving employees the tools and resources they need to feel empowered and to make decisions. If you give them the right information, generally people are going to make good decisions,” he said.
“My approach is simple — empower your people. Provide them with accurate information, necessary resources and support. When we do these things, ultimately, I find that we get results that make us successful in a sustainable way and that is my responsibility as a leader.”
Cruse is intent on establishing a high level of trust.
“People want to hear what I am saying, and I am going to be open, honest and genuine; what you see is what you get,” he said.
Cruse said he is “very process oriented.”
“If something is not going the way we want it to go, we want to identify what within the process is causing it to happen. Instead of it being a people issue, we address what is broken in the process that we need to fix,” he added.
Culture of safety
As is part of Novelis’ culture, Cruse places a high emphasis on safety.
“I have the belief — as many people at Novelis have — that the success of the company starts with our people and their safety, period.”
Cruse said safety is a “very fragile thing.”
“You can be safe for 10 years, but in the one moment you are not safe, an accident can happen in an instant,” he said. “If that happens and someone gets seriously hurt, you can never get that back for that individual.” A former coach once told him, “You’re only as good as your next performance.”
“You can be great up until you have an injury, then all of that doesn’t matter,” he said. “If you are an employee here and you have kids and a significant other, they want you to come home the same way you left.”
He adds safety is a “very personal” aspect of the job.
Cruse said safety is not just about the here and now, but about creating a culture from a futuristic standpoint.
“The best way we can outperform our competitors is to take care of our employees,” he said.
“One of the things the facility does is we look at all the different safety risks we have in the plant, and we actually quantify those risks. We end up taking the highest risks and start working on those to try to reduce our employees’ exposure.” Cruse said. “You can’t eliminate every risk. It’s similar to getting in your car in the morning. There is a certain level of risk as soon as you get in your car and start driving down the street. That’s why we do things like wear seat belts, use turn signals and have traffic lights,” he said.
“We have to do similar things here. We can’t eliminate all the risk, but if we can’t eliminate it, then we have to build controls to protect our people,” he said.
King of the hill
Novelis has the largest footprint in the aluminum industry worldwide — with footprints in North America, Europe, Asia and South America.
“None of our competitors can match that,” he said. “They may have a big footprint in North America or Europe, but typically it’s only two or three of those regions and never all four.”
“Novelis is the hands-down leader in the industry right now,” he said. “Novelis’ North American region is having the biggest impact on the company’s EBITA [earnings before interest, taxes and amortization].”
Novelis is a subsidiary of Hindalco Industries Limited, an industry leader in aluminum and copper.
It is the metals flagship company of the Aditya Birla Group, a multinational conglomerate based in Mumbai, India.
Oswego has the largest impact on the company’s shipments within the North American region.
“Oswego is a big player in a big pond,” he said. “If things are not going right here in Oswego, that impact is felt throughout North America and throughout the entire company.”
In terms of handling that level of pressure, Cruse said that is something he embraced a long time ago.
“I think sports acclimates you to that kind of pressure,” he added.
“I had a baseball coach who used to tell us, ‘Pressure is not having the bases loaded with two outs and a full count. Pressure is having nine kids at home and only one pork chop in the refrigerator. That’s pressure,’” he said.
In order to remain successful, Cruse said the right vision must be set for the entire plant on what direction it is heading. “We have a really good performing team here, but good is never good enough,” he said.
“If you look at all great athletes, all of them have a coach, whether it’s a Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. Typically, it’s not about becoming the best; it’s remaining the best,” he said.
Cruse said it’s one thing to be on top, but a totally different story to stay on top.
The Richmond, Kentucky, native said one key thing to guard against is complacency.
“Over the last seven years, there has been a lot of new business coming into this facility,” he said. “We could sit back and rest on our laurels and say, “we’re good,” but that is not how we become a world class manufacturer and that is the ultimate goal — that’s our hall of fame.”
He said it is vital to maintain that competitive edge.
“Right now, we have great quality,” he said. “And we have to maintain that great quality with our customers. When they want something delivered, we’re there. A big part of that is while we are keeping people safe and producing a quality product, we are asking ourselves if we are doing it at the lowest cost,” Cruse continues. “We have to be competitive on that front too.”
He said it is imperative to understand projects, project management, know how to spend capital and expense dollars properly, and keep projects on budget.
“To remain on top, we have to continue doing all of these great things that have made us successful while continually ensuring we learn, grow and collaborate as team every day,” he concludes.
From the Ball Field to the Corporate Office
Novelis’ new plant manager had shot at Major League Baseball as pitcher
While former college baseball sensation Jeff Cruse did not play at the major league level, he is certainly in the big leagues in the business world.
Cruse was recently named plant manager at Novelis in Oswego.
How good was Cruse on the baseball field?
Following a successful college baseball career with Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky, the Kansas City Royals drafted him in the 45th round of the 1987 Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft.
He would go on to play minor league baseball in the Royals’ farm system.
Cruse also was a key player on the Madison Central High School baseball Indians, a team that went 40-0 in 1982 to capture the Kentucky State baseball title. The team that recorded the perfect season has been considered the best high school baseball team in Kentucky history.
“When the music stops from that level of sports, it takes a while to figure things out, because for all your life, everything was centered around sports and baseball,” said Cruse, who played sports beginning as a 5-year-old says there are many things that translate from sports into the business world.
“For me, I tell people that 90 percent of success is showing up, being there and being on time… Those are the kinds of things that I think translate over to business,” he said.
He said exhibiting a high level of discipline — whether it be training or practicing — on the athletic field is no different from the business world.
“You have to perform every day. If you don’t, your competitors will. It’s not about getting to the top but about how we perform daily to stay there,” he said. “It’s about always being willing to show up and learn something new… no matter how old or young you are, or where you come from,” he adds.
According to Cruse, several colleagues and people at Novelis helped shape him professionally.
Outside of Novelis, Cruse’s late father, Luther, was instrumental during his upbringing.
“He mentored and coached me as my baseball coach up until middle school,” he said.
However, it was his baseball coach at Eastern Kentucky University — the late Jim Ward — who made a significant impact. Ward coached Colonels’ baseball for 22 years.
“He taught me a lot about how to show up every day, as well as who I should be and how I should be,” he said.
“In addition to setting goals, my mentors and coaches along the way have also taught me the importance of surrounding yourself with great team members. You have to get the right people on the bus, and once that is done, you have to get people in the right seats,” he said. “Then you have to build a level of trust and accountability, which we do here. It’s that drive and commitment to being a high performance team that is going to help keep Novelis on top.”