Q&A with: Freudenberg exec Leesa A. Smith

Leesa A. Smith is president of Freudenberg North America Limited Partnership, coordinating services affecting more than 6,000 employees at 15 companies. She was recently appointed the North American (and only female) representative to the international firm’s global executive team.NHBR interviewed her at her office in Manchester, where she is based.Q.Are you from New Hampshire?A. I’m from Rochester, N.Y. My husband, a New Hampshire native, brought me here. I finished up my accounting degree at Plymouth State and went through the executive MBA program at the Whittemore School of Business.I was contacted by a recruiter in 1989, when Freudenberg-NOK was first being formed, looking to hire a corporate treasury manager. Twenty-two years later, I’m still with the company.Q. You started this unit?A. I and a colleague established the North American Regional Corporate Center in 2003 to provide support to all of the business groups in North America. Freudenberg globally is about 5.3 billion in Euros sales, of which North America represents 21 percent. We have automotive sealing and gaskets in New Hampshire. We also have companies that produce non-linen textiles and materials for the apparel industry and for roofing. We own the O-Cedar brand of mops, buckets and sponges.I have responsibility for treasury, insurance and pension management for all of the 15 business groups in North America.Q. You’re still moving up in the company.A. I was appointed to the global executive team as the regional representative. There is a regional representative in North America, Latin America, China, India and Southeast Asia. We have quarterly meetings and ad hoc communications.In addition to my other duties, I provide support for acquisitions, creating regional programs, such as mentoring and developing university relationships.Q. Is it a still a big deal, a woman in a job like yours at a manufacturing company?A. Freudenberg is a very technically based company. I don’t know a single female chemical engineer, for example. In terms of female executives, I am one of a very few, but I don’t think I have faced any unusual barriers.Q. How has Freudenberg dealt with the recession?A. Prior to the economic slowdown, there was diversification into health care and medical devices and oil and gas sealing. Automotive led the downturn, but led us out at a very fast clip — 2010 was one of the best years that we had.We have a very conservatively run company. We have to maintain a minimum of 40 percent equity ratio, to be forward-thinking without overleveraging your business.All companies had to right size their workforce, but you want to preserve as many jobs as you can. You have to be very careful that you don’t lose your key talent. We took measures, such as temporary reductions in paying the 401(k) match and salary reductions.Q. What has happened in terms of employment levels at New Hampshire operations? A. The Freudenberg-NOK general partnership is the largest business. We have facilities in Manchester, Northfield, Bristol, Ashland and Belmont, where they produce sealing technologies, primarily for automotive and aerospace. We did have some workforce adjustments, but we have hired back.Q. What’s your take on energy?A. Energy for us is a key future market focus. We are looking to develop products in alternative energy, fuel cells, solar power and wind power. We completed our new corporate headquarters for household products, in Aurora, Ill. That’s a LEED-certified building. But we are also using some of our recycling products for potential hydroponic farming, supporting the future green industry.Q. What do you see as your company’s biggest challenge?A. Raw material cost and availability. Look at the impact of the earthquake in Japan. Some of the compounds that we use in some of our sealing products were heavily impacted.

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