By Steve Yablonski
Kristen Nelson is the first female plant manager at the Novelis facility in Scriba.
“I am the first. But I am certain I will not be the last,” she said.
She started Jan. 31—following the retirement of Jeff Cruse.
“I was born in Johnson City, New York; moved to New Hampshire shortly after birth,” she said.
She considers New Hampshire to be where she grew up and New York “to be my home off and on for many years.”
Nelson has an older sister, in California. “She escaped the snow many years ago. She works for Meta in HR with their recruiting group,” she said.
Regarding her age, Nelson explained, “I’m the type of person who feels like age is just a number. We all come with different experiences throughout our life and that contributes to who we are and who we develop to be. That’s my belief.”
She attended Clarkson University, graduating in 2007, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. Then she joined Anheuser-Busch at its Baldwinsville plant.
“After that, I started my career with Novelis in Oswego and spent about seven years [here] before becoming plant manager at Novelis’ facility in Warren, Ohio. I’ve joked that Ohio is the furthest south I’ve ever lived. Apparently, I’m drawn to cold, snow and being able to experience all four seasons at their finest,” she said of her return to Central New York.
Most of her early career was in maintenance and reliability. She became a certified maintenance reliability professional and is a certified reliability leader. At Anheuser-Busch, she mostly focused on maintenance and reliability.
“I did spend a little time there in operations as well. While I was there I found my real passion was around maintenance and reliability,” she explained. “It’s about improving your equipment’s longevity so you can go longer in between seeing down time.”
“I was looking for a change in my career. I wanted a little bit more of a challenge. I joined Novelis in 2012 as a reliability engineer, which was a very exciting time as we’d just announced a capital investment for our automotive finishing lines,” she said. “I was early in my career and wanted to explore my options, but knew I wanted to continue my career in manufacturing.
“Through manufacturing, I’ve had the benefit of learning different aspects of business, which reach far beyond traditional education. The fast pace leads to no two days feeling the same and highlights the truest sense of teamwork. I’d encourage anyone who is interested in a rewarding career to try manufacturing. Although manufacturing is a largely male-dominated space, women have played an important role in manufacturing since the world wars. I believe they’ll continue to be strong contributors in the future.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s difficult for women to advance [in manufacturing]. There’s a low to high 30% women represented in manufacturing. So it’s still relatively low; we don’t have the overall population of women. I think it’s gone up over time. But I would say the progress has been pretty slow… overall with women being in higher level positions as well. I see that one of my roles is also mentoring folks who want to get to that level, especially women,” she added.
When the opportunity came up to be plant manager in Warren, there was a lot of family discussion.
“I have a husband [Anders] and two boys [Anders II and Emmanuel], 10 and 6, so they’re both relatively young. I think it’s always a challenge when you’re discussing these opportunities with your families. Especially your kids; because they don’t have the full context of the situation and what that means for them and what it means for their parents and the whole dynamic. It’s certainly challenging,” she said. “I’m incredibly thankful of how supportive my family has been in my transition to Ohio as well as back to Central New York.”
The family is excited to be returning to the Central New York area and is still looking for the right place to settle in, she said.
“I’ve had an interesting journey. I was born outside of Binghamton and moved to New Hampshire,” she explained. “We moved so my dad could start his own architectural mill working company. He had it for many years and then decided to retire and sell it.”
She didn’t go into the ‘family business.’
“I worked with Dad for the summers and school breaks when I was a lot younger. He was a tough guy to work for,” she recalled with a smile. “But I will say, he instilled a lot of good qualities in me that I hold to this day.”
“I always felt like I needed to demonstrate to myself that I could go out and do these things on my own. So I remember, I think I was a junior in high school, I’d always worked with my dad during the summer and I was like ‘you know, I really want to do something different—prove to myself that I could go out and get a job, and do that on my own.’ So I wound up that summer working at Barnes and Noble, which was fantastic,” she said. “I always felt this need to go out and show myself that I can do that. So, I did not stay in the ’family business.’”
When she was looking at colleges for engineering, she “was looking all over the place.”
“I went to Clarkson University when I was looking at different schools. Clarkson felt right to me. I went to a very small high school; there were very small class sizes. Clarkson felt right,” she said. “After I went there, I just sort of stayed in the area; had an opportunity at Anheuser-Busch. That’s where my husband and I settled down in our early years.”
“I wouldn’t say there’s any particular training I went through or experienced to get ready for a role like this. I think there is a lot of ties between continuous improvement and that mentality that can help support a person going to a career like this,” she explained.
In her senior year at college, she started thinking about careers, what she wanted to do with her life. “I was very set on moving into a career like design engineering. I didn’t even have manufacturing on my radar at all until I visited Anheuser-Busch at a career fair and they decided to interview me. I was talking with other companies as well, but that sort of opened up my eyes to manufacturing.”
“It’s interesting when I reflect on that moment of time — I really, really thought I wanted to be a design engineer,” she continued. “Now, where I am today—I cannot picture myself being a design engineer because manufacturing is so fast-paced, no two days are the same. You have opportunities to change direction throughout the day and work in teams. You don’t always have that in a very design specific role. So, reflecting back, I think I made a terrific choice! I just didn’t realize it at that time.”
She’s a strong supporter of early exposure to STEM activities to build the future technical leaders. In Ohio, she partnered with Youngstown State University to introduce Novelis and manufacturing careers in general to college students. “I’m honored that I was named a STEP Ahead Nominee by the Manufacturing Institute in 2021,” she said.
In March, students in the Oswego County Pathways in Technology Early College High School program put their critical thinking and engineering skills to the test during a conveyor belt-building competition at CiTi. It was designed and sponsored by Novelis.
“I didn’t realize how impactful some of the opportunities that I had when I was really, really young shaped me mentally to move into more of a STEM path. Having folks come to school and share STEM activities in the classroom and having opportunities to go to one-day lessons or camps to be with other kids that were showing more of an interest in math and science — those really shaped me when I was young,” she said. “I’ll say I had a natural draw toward math and science when I was younger. Those were typically the courses I was most successful in in school. As time progressed, that just felt more and more natural for me. Sometimes, we are drawn to things that come more naturally. That was sort of my path there.”
“The other interesting thing about my childhood and growing up is my aunt is an aeronautical engineer. She works for FAA. She had some influence as well as being a role model for me as a young girl growing up,” she said.
Nelson recognizes there are many characteristics necessary to be a good leader — including trust, integrity, respect, honesty, connection, communication and more.
“For me, some of the key characteristics of a good leader are listening to others and being empathetic. Listening to the perspectives of others and being open to feedback and new ideas helps us all to learn and grow personally and professionally. It also creates an environment built on trust where people have a safe space to share their ideas and fosters an environment of inclusion,” she said. “Empathy is also a key to strong leadership because it allows us to tap into the emotions of others and connect through understanding what it means to be in their situation. Empathy allows us to be more mindful in the balance between the intensity of reaching business results and compassion for employees needs.”
Her personal motto is: “Together we made what seemed impossible a reality.”
“It highlights that each individual is unique, holding different knowledge and perspectives. In order to solve incredibly complex challenges, we need all of our ideas to build upon one another and push our perceived limitations,” she explained.
There’ve been many people throughout her life that have influenced her— “from my parents, to grandparents, my partner and children, and close colleagues that have mentored me throughout my career,” she said. “The influence that sticks out most in my memory is not a person but rather the experiences I was able to have in my early education.”
For example, she cited the opportunity to go to an all-girls one-day STEM leadership camp in third grade.
“Of course, it wasn’t called STEM then. I attended with kids from multiple school districts. We were asked to select a profession for a ‘day in the life’ experience. We lived a day in the life of a veterinarian, doctor, architect, pilot, engineer etc. and got to complete activities that highlighted STEM concepts, but in fun playful way,” she recalled. “Another memorable experience was the time we had an aeronautical engineer come into the classroom to show us how to make our own rocket ships. Even the times my parents let me come up with crazy inventions, build them to try to see if they work or not, were influential for me. It was the nurturing of curiosity from many people in my life that influenced me down any path I chose.”
Her family keeps her “very active and busy.”
“We enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing and camping,” she said. “Our family also has a tradition where every year on birthdays each person gets to pick a theme for their cake and I design it. I’ve completed themes such as Darth Vader, Bumblebee, Paw Patrol, Mandalorian, Amethysts and dinosaurs.”
She has a dog, Zoey, and two cats, Tommy and Sharky.
The dog is a dachshund shepherd mix.
“Everyone has that look on their face when I say that,” she laughed. “She’s got the body of a dachshund and she’s got the coat of a shepherd and I’d say the personality of a shepherd as well.”
Nelson’s favorite author is John Steinbeck “for his ability to connect with audiences across a scale of social and economic perspectives.” Her favorite TV show is “Top Chef”—or really any cooking show. She loves food and trying new flavors and tastes.
“Chefs are like artists and watching them blend flavors and techniques interests me,” she said.
What does the future hold?
“I don’t know. If I had a crystal ball I think I might be doing something different,” she said. “I’ve always been a person who has been really content doing what I’m doing now and doing it as best I can.
“That’s one of my favorite things about Novelis and manufacturing. There are so many opportunities to learn and grow inside of your career or discipline in one spot. But there are also other opportunities that come up. What the future holds, I’m not quite sure. I’m definitely happy to be here and enjoy what I’m doing right now.” ϖ