Shortcut (shȯrt-ˌkət): A method or means of doing something more directly and quickly than and often not so thoroughly as by ordinary procedure. – Merriam-Webster
Some of the most ingenious inventions and innovative ideas were imagined by those who wanted to make things simpler. In other words, they were looking for a shortcut.
For the Fox family, however, easy wasn’t encouraged.
“My dad would never let me take shortcuts, particularly when it came to school,” recalled Rosalind “Roz” Fox, factory manager at John Deere Des Moines Works. “I could never come home with less than a ‘B’ on my report cards. I remember asking him to buy a calculator so math would be easier. He said, ‘no, you’re going to do this by hand.’ I think when he forced me to figure problems out, use my brain, and work through it, he enabled me to become a good problem solver.”
And an even better engineer.
The “Greatest Thing on Earth”
The first thing many visitors notice about John Deere Des Moines Works is the sheer size of the place. The 3.5 million-square-foot facility, a former World War II munitions plant, is nestled on a 600-acre campus northwest of Iowa’s capital city.
Inside the brick buildings are gleaming production facilities where workers operate high-tech manufacturing equipment.
Futuristic robotic transport vehicles hum softly along predetermined paths. Glistening green and yellow sprayers, cotton harvesters, and tillage products roll off the assembly lines destined for customers worldwide.
There’s no place Fox would rather be.
“Every day, we take hunks of metal and transform them into majestic machines. You don’t think that’s the greatest thing on earth?” she asked, rhetorically. “It’s so fulfilling to see your work roar to life. I’m not out on the line turning wrenches, but I have the privilege of leading teams responsible for that. It’s unbelievable.”
Fox is the youngest of six children and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri.
“We lived in government-subsidized housing, but I had no idea we were poor,” Fox said. “We loved each other very much, and my parents worked very hard to make sure we had lights, gas, and food. Sure, there were struggles. But we were a tight family. In fact, everyone in the neighborhood knew us as the ‘black Brady Bunch.’”
Her mom was a school bus driver, and her dad worked at McDonnell Douglas.
“They always wanted me to learn by doing,” said Fox. “When I got my first car, mom and dad wouldn’t check my oil. They made me do it. They raised us to be very independent, strong-willed, and taught us that we could do anything we set our minds to.”
Fox did well in high school. But afterwards, she had no direction. No purpose.
“I was working part-time stocking shelves at a department store. I had a smoking habit, I was hanging around with the wrong crowd, and I had been fired from a local fast food restaurant,” she said. “Then one day, God must have had enough of me and said, ‘Wake up and get it together, girl. There’s something bigger in store for you.’”
Fox’s dad saved up enough money for her to enroll at the local community college. But first, he told her to call the University of Missouri just to see if she could get in.
“I was admitted, thankfully. And dad told me ‘you’re going to school to be an engineer. If I’m paying for this, you’re going to be an engineer,’” she explained. “He didn’t know what engineers did, but he worked with them on the production floor. When I got to college, I was suffering because I was so ill-prepared.”
She didn’t know anyone. She didn’t know how to study. She had no idea the university’s engineering curriculum was so tough.
“I would go to the library and study until it closed. On weekends, I’d wake up, have breakfast, then go to the library. I’d have lunch then study until it closed. I went to the library so much that the librarians started leaving me candy,” said Fox. “I didn’t have the typical college experience going to football or basketball games or spring break. None of that. School became my job because I knew my father was paying for it out-of-pocket so I couldn’t disappoint him.”
Fox’s hard work paid off. She graduated from Missouri with an electrical engineering degree, then earned her master’s in industrial engineering.
“I learned more about myself than anything else. I learned about determination, found the will to win, and refused to give up,” she said. “When I have doubts, I just think about how I started and everything I’ve overcome. If I want something bad enough, I just dig in my heels and go for it.”
Persistence would prove priceless throughout the next few years. Fox worked as an engineer for an employer that required her to move often. “I lived in every small town there is in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Kentucky,” she said with a laugh.
Fox was a high performer and soon caught the attention of a legendary American automaker, who offered her a job that would train her to become a factory manager.
“I was business unit leader. I had responsibility for the body shop, which is where the steel of the car—the floor pan, doors, shell of the car—goes before paint,” Fox said. “Out of the blue, a recruiter called me and said there was a company a couple of hours west of Chicago that would like to talk to me. I had no intentions of leaving, but thought ‘hey, I’ll at least practice my interview skills.'”
She had no idea what would happen next.
The Drive to Deere
“The company two hours west of Chicago turned out to be John Deere. And I’ll never forget walking into World Headquarters and seeing the HR person there to greet me. He had a big smile on his face,” said Fox. “I ran into Bob Lane (former chairman and chief executive officer) and we talked for five minutes. At the automaker, it was cutthroat. Nobody smiled. And all of a sudden, I’m at a place where everyone was so nice and welcoming.”
Fox didn’t take the job. Deere, however, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“One of the interviewers called and told me he’d do whatever he needed to do to build my network. He told me that he’d personally mentor me,” Fox said. “So, I accepted. I remember driving on interstate 80 and being in full-blown tears. Why am I doing this? What did I get myself into? I had to pull over.”
She started on a forestry project. Then moved to supply management. Then became a business unit manager. She worked on her MBA, went into human resources, then became factory manager at John Deere Turf Care in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina.
“The day I went to my first production meeting, I felt so comfortable and so happy,” she said. “It felt like home.”
Still, the girl from the big city still had doubts about staying with Deere long-term. Until she made a work trip to South Africa.
“We were visiting customers that were using John Deere machines. They were cultivating the first scalable crops they’d ever grown because of our products,” said Fox. “When I saw that our work was truly changing people’s lives, that’s when I was sold on the company. That was the moment I decided I was going to stay with Deere. I’ll never forget it.”
Paying it Forward
Nowadays, Fox – the first black female factory manager in John Deere history –is having the time of her life running John Deere Des Moines Works.
“There are so many things I enjoy, but I absolutely love working with the folks on the floor. Sometimes, people might look at my title and think that I can’t relate. But I get it,” she said. “The work we do is for our customers; however, we help sustain the lives of our employees as well. I love to be able, as a leader, to make decisions that enable their success so they can have jobs, their kids can have jobs, and their grandkids can have jobs here if they want.”
Fox is also using the past to pay it forward.
“I wish I had the opportunity as a young girl to do First Robotics League and learn about engineering at an early age. So we’ve started an ‘introduce a girl to engineering’ day, we’re sponsoring a weld program, and we’re offering welding scholarships for young adults to work here,” she said. “I’m committed to helping young people pursue STEM [ed. — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] careers in any way I can.”
Recently, Fox was appointed by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds to serve on the state’s Commission on the Status of African Americans. At Deere, she’s focusing on fostering a more diverse and inclusive company and developing future female leaders.
“If I can do it, they can do it. It’s not about how you start, it’s how you end,” said Fox. “If you look at all the struggles I had early — if I can get through that and have some level of success, you absolutely can do it. Don’t be afraid. Step up to the challenge.”