The story of “rising up the ranks” within a corporation might seem like a myth, but it happens more in the automotive and fleet industry than you may realize.
Rob Williams, president of Hankook Tire North America started his automotive career in retails sales, then as the district manager at Goodyear for several years,before moving over to director roles at Tire Centers, LLC, eventually named vice president of commercial operations. He spent some time with AAA Carolinas as vice president of Car Care Centers before joining the Hankook team in 2019 as the senior director of TBR sales.
A Q&A with Rob Williams of Hankook Tire
Work Truck sat down with Williams to learn more about his journey through the executive ranks, trends he is seeing in commercial truck tires, changing fleet manager needs, and what the future of the tire market may hold.
Work Truck: Can you share your journey of rising the ranks from a sales position to becoming the president of Hankook Tire America Corp.?
ROB WILLIAMS: My career has always been customer-focused in nature, whether it be sales or operations. Getting to know and understand our customer, partner, and market dynamics has been vital to my career growth. That ultimately allowed me to lead the Hankook North American team.
My tenure at Hankook began in 2019 when I joined as Senior Director of Commercial Sales, then to Vice President of Commercial Sales. I was appointed senior vice president of replacement RE & OE Commercial and RE Consumer Sales in 2022, then president N.A. in 2023.
WT: What were the key milestones or experiences that shaped your career?
WILLIAMS: The biggest milestone in my eyes has been successfully building a high-performing team that helps Hankook grow the consumer and commercial products market. To do this, I’ve focused on the four Ps:
- Great product.
- Great partners.
- Strong process.
- Great people.
These have been focus areas in building my team because growth happens when you put those four pieces together.
Like most of us, I have made my share of mistakes, but it is crucial to always look at them as a growth experience and focus on what you learn from the outcome.
WT: As someone with extensive experience in the auto industry, what trends have you observed in the commercial truck tire sector in recent years? How have these trends influenced Hankook's strategy and product development?
WILLIAMS: We have seen several key trends impacting the commercial truck tire sector and the broader automotive market. These include economic challenges, stronger business partnerships between customers and manufacturers, and the growth of electric truck models.
Events from the last few years, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and recent geopolitical turmoil, have led to some uncertainties in the marketplace, including fear of recession, the rising cost of goods, and supply chain disruption.
During these challenging times, Hankook Tire has made necessary adjustments to position itself as a world-class leader in the automotive space.
This includes the recent opening of our production plant in Clarksville, Tenn., which positions us to equip the regional markets better. The Tennessee plant is on track for expansion to include starting to produce truck tires as well.
And, when it comes to tire fitments, customers have various supplier options. These customers increasingly turn to suppliers that can provide additional offers and after-sales support. Whether we are working with dealers or fleets, Hankook puts the partnership nature of our business relationship with our customers at the center. We always want to ensure they see Hankook as a strong partner that the end-users of our products can rely on.
Finally, believe it or not, the discussion about decarbonization in the trucking industry has been settling. Along with this demand for e-commercial vehicles, comes the growing need for tires that not only help reduce carbon emissions but also tires with great performance in their segments and applications.
As such, Hankook has been working on improving and innovating products that meet and exceed this new market demand trend.
WT: Hankook Tire is known for its focus on tire development and innovation. Can you discuss some recent advancements or technologies that Hankook has introduced in the commercial truck tire market?
WILLIAMS: We leverage key technologies to enhance our commercial truck tire product development, especially as the industry faces its version of the EV revolution and increased demand for sustainability-enhancing products. One example is our SmartWay-approved products, which feature a low rolling resistance tire that provides fuel savings and/or emission reduction benefits for fleet customers. The Smartec TBR technology is based on five main performance features: safety, mileage, anti-chip-cut, retreadability, and traction.
Internationally, we have also developed the eSmart City AU06+ for electric buses in Korea. This is an example of how Hankook’s innovative EV tire technology can be applied to improve fuel efficiency, better torque, and higher load-carrying capacity for commercial vehicles. This increases the vehicle’s mileage by 25% and increases the quiet and comfort of any ride with noise reduction.
WT: How do these innovations address fleet operators' evolving needs and challenges?
WILLIAMS: More recently, we have been accelerating the capabilities and applications of our AI algorithms and virtual technologies through expanded internal outsourced research. Our R&D headquarters at the Technodome facility in Daejeon, South Korea leads this research.
We are also developing new products using Virtual Tire Model and actively utilizing this virtual technology in response to TBR market demands.
WT: The automotive industry is undergoing significant changes with the rise of EVs and other disruptive technologies. How is Hankook Tire adapting to this changing landscape? Are any specific initiatives or partnerships in place to cater to the EV market?
WILLIAMS: The future of mobility, specifically the EV segment, has become a popular topic with our dealers during trade shows and other events within the industry. This has allowed us to showcase our iON products, which have been very well received.
China and Europe are currently leading in the electric truck and bus market, where Hankook has already made its name with eSmart City AU06+.
We will also launch products in the future equipped with the latest technology, fuel efficiency, mileage, and performance. We are constantly monitoring and studying the electric truck market and preparing to expand our eSmart product line.
Further, Hankook’s EV tire technology is being developed at the pinnacle of electric motorsport: the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship. Motorsport is the ultimate test of pushing tires to their limits. And because Formula E is electric car racing, the tires are also developed specifically for this purpose.
The results are immediately available after every race, so we can improve performance and driver safety as needed. This knowledge can then be applied to our consumer and commercial work. For example, the same technology from the iON race tires is now being applied to the iON consumer tires, which offer long mileage, low rolling resistance, and high grip and handling performance.
WT: Looking ahead, what do you envision for the future of Hankook Tire? Do you foresee any growth or strategic focus areas in the coming years?
WILLIAMS: Much of our focus has been and will remain on the EV segment for Hankook.
As an early adopter of our state-of-the-art technology, we are proud to have a full portfolio based on iON Performance Technology, a line solely dedicated to electric vehicles.
WT: Sustainability and environmental responsibility are increasingly important in the automotive industry. What is Hankook Tire doing to minimize its environmental footprint and promote sustainable practices across its operations and products?
WILLIAMS: Hankook Tire announced a mid- to long-term ESG strategy under the 2050 Carbon Neutral Roadmap in response to the global climate crisis.
We are actively promoting this roadmap within the company to raise awareness and foster participation amongst employees and management in energy-preserving activities. In addition, each department is developing plans to improve its carbon footprint figures in line with our goals.
As a company, Hankook Tire is aiming to achieve carbon neutrality in the manufacturing sector by 2040, and the entire value chain by 2050. As part of this, we plan to achieve RE100 and transition to sustainable raw materials for LNG boilers.
On the production level, we are increasing the use of recycled materials, strengthening the management of the waste treatment agency, actively taking part in the end-of-life tire initiative, and recycling.
Hankook Tire’s commitment to sustainability and focus on electric vehicle solutions have earned its recognition from renowned international organizations like Dow Jones Sustainability Indices World, EcoVadis, and CDP.
We have even extended our dedication to eco-friendliness and sustainability into the products we develop.
Our new iON lineup for electric vehicles is our most compelling product regarding sustainability. With iON, we are committed to advancing the mobility transition toward zero-emission vehicles. Our partnership with Formula E also shows our emphasis on eco-friendliness and sustainability.
WT: As the president of Hankook Tire America Corp., what are your primary goals and priorities for the company in the near future? Are there any specific initiatives or projects that you are particularly excited about?
WILLIAMS: On the commercial side, we are striving to help our fleets reduce the total cost of ownership through fleet mobility solutions. These include enhancing our HELP (Hankook Emergency Link Program) and evaluating fleet mobility tools to help manage the total cost of ownership.
In 2021, we also announced a pilot engagement with Revvo Technologies and Junk King, an eco-friendly junk removal and haul company. Integrating our SmartFlex tires and Revvo’s technology provides critical tire-specific data for 30% of Junk King’s California-based vehicles.
When the data is processed, it becomes actionable insights, including predicted tread life, abnormal tire behavior, optimal tire maintenance intervals and settings, and real-time alerts.
More broadly, we will continue to focus on the ongoing EV evolution. In support of this, we recently held an incredible event in Portland, Ore. Attendees experienced an EV ride and drive featuring our iON latest products, followed by the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship with some of our key partners. This event underscored one way we continuously explore the future of EV mobility, an effort that extends to the TBR universe.
Additionally, we will keep focusing on strengthening our distribution partnerships with advanced product training and participation in our distributors’ regional events.
WT: Do you have any advice or insights for aspiring professionals who aim to climb the corporate ladder in the automotive industry, based on your own experiences and success?
WILLIAMS: My main piece of advice is always to keep learning. Hone your craft, continually read trade journals, periodicals, and more. Hands-on learning is also critical. Make sure to have a deep understanding of trends in the market and the ability to adapt to these changes.
In addition, be willing to take on additional assignments or projects. These often show your value and ability to “think outside the box.”
And lastly: follow up, follow up, follow up. Once you commit to something, make sure you follow up in a timely manner.