There might not be a better job in the world: Shopping for a living, and breaking glass ceilings at the same time.
That’s what Rebecca Vest does.
Next time you’re in your car, take a look around you. That leather that covers your dashboard? She buys that. The gorgeous metal-flecked paint you fell in love with when you picked out your car? She bought that, too. The thick, velvety floor mats that get too muddy in the spring but then vacuum so beautifully clean? She bought those, too. Well, in theory, at least; if you’re driving a Nissan or Infiniti, Rebecca was the woman in charge of all those elements, as well as the less sexy necessities like radio volume knobs, oil filters and exhaust pipes.
As Vice President of Purchasing for Nissan, Americas, Rebecca is one of the highest ranking women in automotive and her clout continues to rise.
From shopping to executive role
Rebecca says she was “always a shopper” and she loves to buy home furnishings.. shoes and handbags.” But how did she parlay that into a job managing over 600 people in eight different sites?
At the University of Kentucky, Rebecca majored in business at a time when the economy was contracting and jobs were scarce. Toyota opened a plant in Georgetown, KY and her father encouraged her to apply. But “I never meant to stay 22 years,” she jokes.
Rebecca started out as a junior buyer working with interior trim buying weather strips and door panel components. Now she is in charge of buying all the materials for 950,000 vehicles produced in the region: US, Mexico and Canada, some 22 billion parts and materials.
And it’s not just the raw materials for cars that she controls. Rebecca buys everything needed to run a plant, from janitorial supplies to the natural gas needed to power the equipment. With all purchasing under one person, “we can command economies of scale,” she said.
The power of two: Rebecca has two jobs at Nissan
Rebecca has been at Nissan for five years, and actually holds two positions; she is also Vice President in the global Renault Nissan Purchasing Organization (RNPO).
This means she takes a global perspective on purchasing: while most of the materials she buys are produced locally in the community where the assembly plant is, she also tries to find the best global prices, and works to develop suppliers both locally and globally. It also means she has to take in broader economic factors, like tsunamis and earthquakes, that can affect local production.
Keeping an eye on the bottom line and making sure components are priced competitively is always the goal. She works hard to be both tough and fair.
Leading the way for other women
Rebecca said that at Toyota, she was one of very few women both in her department and at the entire plant, and the first Western buyer. She said that over 20 years ago, in Japanese culture, men were not used to working with women, though she says she was always treated “very fairly and kindly.” Now, she notes, there are more women in engineering and purchasing, both here and in Japan.
At Nissan, she says the culture is open and she doesn’t feel that there is a glass ceiling, but she makes sure to develop the right talent. She is committed to promoting diversity but also hiring the best candidate; she says,” I have brought a lot of women into the pipeline because we didn’t have enough people at the entry level to promote. Now we have [future] senior managers and directors just starting out.”
As one of the leaders of women’s business synergy team inside Nissan, she helped produce Digigirlz, in February. The day long event brought 150 school girls who are interested in STEM careers to Nissan. Female engineers and managers talked to the girls about their careers, offering seminars, training, mentoring and advice. And Rebecca emphasizes that you don’t have to be solely focused on math and science to pursue a STEM career; she said a friend’s daughter, who is a ballerina, asked to attend.
The real satisfaction: seeing your team’s work roll off the line
Rebecca said “I love to see a car roll off the line; many people have difficulty seeing how their job relates to the bottom line, but I see it and know that 600 people contribute.” She loves the teamwork aspect of seeing that car, “the culmination of all that work. It’s not about one supplier or buyer being strong and one weak; if one part is missing we can’t make that car.”
She says “it’s fun to go to suppliers’ plants and go on the floor with them and let them show me what they are doing on the manufacturing floor.”
Rebecca’s daily driving choice? All about that space
Rebecca drives an Infiniti QX80 (Nissan owns the luxury car brand). With two kids and an active life that includes sports, travel and lots of activities, she appreciates the space and flexibility the QX80 gives her family. Her favorite interior feature is the way the instrument panel looks. “When I sit down if I like a car it’s based on how the instrument panel is constructed.”