Canton — Every weekday at 5 a.m., Jeffrey Webster wakes up and prepares for another 12-hour day at Nissan North America’s automotive assembly plant in Canton.
On most mornings by 6:15 a.m., he’s in his office reviewing the local newspapers, checking e-mails and prioritizing his “things to do” list.
“This day was not typical,” he said, during a mid-morning break. “My plans were to follow my list, but 10 minutes after I got into work, six technicians were here wanting to visit with me and discuss things in their particular work area. My question to them was: What area do you work in from an HR (human resources) standpoint? They thought I was going to send them back to their particular area because we usually follow protocol of moving from the appropriate level up. However, we take pride at this plant in having an open line of communication, so I sat down and talked to them and listened to their concerns.”
Slightly delayed by the impromptu meeting, Webster dashed to a director’s meeting. As one of six directors, he is the only one that touches all areas of the plant as HR director. And soon after, he raced to another scheduled meeting.
“I keep on my running shoes,” he said, with a laugh. “That’s one thing about working in manufacturing. You always come prepared.”
Webster took an unconventional route to the top of the HR pyramid in Nissan’s newest plant. He grew up in Columbia, Tenn., the son of Leland Webster, a piano-playing minister and a retired chemical company electrician, and Annie, a sewing factory supervisor. A middle child, he and his younger sister, Lisa, often sang in church accompanied by their older brother, Randy.
After earning a two-year degree from Columbia State Community College and a business administration degree from Middle Tennessee State University, Webster worked for the National Baptist Publishing Board handling inventory control before joining Nissan in 1985.
“Even though I had a degree, I started in production and knew I wanted to get into some type of administrative work, and whatever stage I was in, I tried to do my best, and I think that helped me advance more than anything,” said Webster, who began as employee relations section manager for several production areas at the Smyrna, Tenn., plant before serving the facility as a human resources representative and generalist in the paint plant, and production and lead technician in the stamping plant.
Then Galen Medlin approached Webster with an offer he almost refused.
“He said, ‘Jeff, I want you to work with me on a project’ and I said, ‘Sure, what do you want me to do?’ and he told me the company was looking at building a plant in Mississippi,” recalled Webster. “He was going down to get it started and wanted to know if I’d go and help him with it. I said, ‘OK, no problem.’ But I must’ve said it in a way that indicated I thought it was short term. And he said, ‘No, we’re going to be there for a while. I mean moving to Mississippi.’”
At first, Webster was less than enthusiastic about the idea of relocating further south.
“To be honest, outside of Mississippi, a lot of times all you hear is bad,” he said. “It takes a person going to Mississippi and experiencing the hospitality and the other things the state has to offer to really appreciate it. My reaction is probably consistent with a lot of the others’ reactions when they initially hear about Mississippi. But once they’re here, that perception totally changes. Mississippi is the most hospitable state there is. You can’t find a better group of people.”
Most days, Webster, who was promoted to head of HR for the Nissan Canton plant after Medlin retired at the end of March, leaves the office around 6 p.m., and races home in time for dinner with his wife, Alesia, and their three daughters, Jessica, Jalesa, and Jocelyn, ranging in age from eight to 16. They’ll usually chat about homework and plans for the weekend. “The girls line up our entertainment, which is usually a movie and a couple of meals out,” he said. Most recently, they munched on chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant in Madison and watched Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Family Reunion” at the local cineplex.
“I love the outdoors, and not just because the women put me out,” he said, with a laugh. “I love to hunt, fish, and do yard work, and I love to be involved in church activities.” At Canton United Methodist Church, Webster is a member of the mass choir, directs the male chorus and chairs the trustee board.
Webster is usually asleep by 10 p.m., so he can rise early the next day to begin the routine anew. Coming up on his to-do list: hiring area managers (first-line supervisors) and industrial and manufacturing engineers.
He’s also busy as a national board member of the Nissan Foundation, board member of the Mississippi Children’s Home Society and a member of the Society of Human Resources Management. In 1998 and 1999, he received the Black Achiever of the Year award in honor of his accomplishments as a minority professional.
“People are always asking me how they can get on at Nissan,” said Webster. “I tell them that, in addition to the regular qualifications, they have to want to be part of a family.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.