Jeff Nemeth BBA ’82, MBA ’85 has traveled the world while working in the auto industry. Now, as President and CEO of Ford Motor Company's South Africa operations, he is helping to drive growth in one of the country’s burgeoning industries. Here, Jeff shares with us details about his career and how his Notre Dame education helps him accomplish his goals.
Graduate Alumni Newsletter: How did you get into the auto industry?
Jeff Nemeth: Ever since I was a child, if it had wheels I was interested in taking it apart or putting it together. I was only 10 when I constructed my first go-cart. Due to my deep interest in vehicles, I studied engineering and business at Notre Dame.
I began my automotive industry career in Detroit with the Saturn division of General Motors. In 1995, I joined Ford Motor Company as strategy director in the Customer Service division. That's when Ford sent me to Notre Dame to recruit new employees.
We brought a Mustang convertible and put it into the atrium of the Mendoza College of Business during a career fair event. When students came to talk about working for Ford, I opened the driver’s door and said, “step into my office.” What you do for a living is part of what defines you. While talking to your family at dinner, you could hold up a consulting report and say “this is what I did today”; or you could walk them into the driveway and point at the Mustang, “this is what I did today.”
Graduate Alumni Newsletter: Why did you choose ND for your graduate degree?
Jeff Nemeth: I grew up in South Bend, so Notre Dame was always a part of my life. When I was in high school, I got a job at the University washing dishes in the South Dining Hall. But once I became an undergrad at Our Lady's University, that's when I really developed an appreciation for the quality of the education, the school's reputation and its alumni network. After graduation, I worked for two years before enrolling in Notre Dame's MBA program.That's when I really understood the respect and credibility a Notre Dame education commands. In addition, I found an education based in the Catholic faith, and that provided me with the moral and ethical foundation to be successful in business while simultaneously making a positive contribution to my community.
Graduate Alumni Newsletter: How have you utilized your graduate degree in your career?
Jeff Nemeth: Every day we face decisions with multiple solution scenarios. Having a point of view void of faith, purpose and character is hollow. There is a fine line between managing or inspiring your staff, but there is an extraordinary difference between the two measured in delivering results. Mendoza is focused on educating and preparing talented and successful leaders who are able to set clear goals, have a strong work ethic and are honest with God and themselves. The outcome is people of influence with deep character who are able to inspire and make a difference in the world.
Graduate Alumni Newsletter: How do you stay connected to Notre Dame?
Jeff Nemeth: Honestly from Africa, it’s a little difficult! The closest Notre Dame club is about 3,000 miles away. We’ve been blessed with a rich flow of professors and administrators traveling to Johannesburg for research projects and community service initiatives. I also have a few friends in the administration building who pass my contact information along to ND groups with an interest in Africa. I enjoy discussing my adopted home with potential visitors as the gap between perception and reality is huge – CNN is not necessarily the best travelogue.
Graduate Alumni Newsletter: What led to you working in South Africa?
Jeff Nemeth: Prior to South Africa, I lived in Taiwan for six years and Japan for three years. The leap to life in Africa for my family was eased by a rich experience in Asia. We have enjoyed South Africa immensely. Additionally, the company needed a particular skill set to move the business forward in Africa and I was lucky to have developed some of those qualities. My family has grown through this rich experience in South Africa – it has been an exhilarating experience.
Graduate Alumni Newsletter: What is most different about working in South Africa compared to the U.S.?
Jeff Nemeth: America is a melting pot, diverse in terms of race, culture and religion. In Africa there are 2,000 official languages, more than 200 ethnic groups and the average age of an African is 19. The youth demographic and the lack of infrastructure means companies that are willing to target Africa for innovation initiatives have the opportunity to leapfrog developed markets. The rate of change is dizzying. For example, 68 percent of Kenyans use their mobile phone as their wallet – no credit cards and no cash. Keeping abreast of development is really important to remain competitive.
For more on Jeff’s role at Ford Motor Company, watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1srzU_mszY0.