One of the first decisions Charlene Norvell made seven months ago after being named president of the TDK Ferrites Corp. in Shawnee, was to hold face-to-face meetings with the 250 people who work at the 35,000-square-foot plant making ferrites, or metals that are magnetized to control motors on washing machines and the windshield wipers, motorized seats and other parts on cars.
Among other things, she stressed that opportunities are limitless for employees, half of whom are contracted through Express Employment Professionals. Norvell wasn't just putting a rosy spin on things. Twenty-four years ago, she was hired as temporary shipping clerk and later worked in grinding on the production line.
“I wanted everybody to understand that I was there; I did what they're doing,” she said. “And there will be opportunities to advance, which I took sometimes kicking and screaming.”
With her appointment, Norvell becomes the first woman to head a plant of the Japan-based global manufacturer. The Shawnee plant every month manufactures some 10.5 million ferrite magnets and does some $2 million in sales. Its 12 major customers include motor assemblers DENSO, ASMO and Mitsuba corporations.
Norvell, 56, sat down with The Oklahoman on Tuesday to talk about her professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Can you tell us about your roots?
A: My father was a Shawnee native and my mom was raised in Sparks. Though I was born in Tulsa, I grew up mostly in Florida near the Kennedy Space Center and, from age 12 on, in Cypress, Calif. My father worked as technical writer for the Air Force, including on missile projects. My mother was a homemaker. There were eight of us kids, six girls and two boys. I'm the second oldest, with a sister 10½ months older; my youngest sibling is nine years younger. I was a good student, and participated in gymnastics in middle school and on the drill team in high school. Upon my high school graduation, in 1974, my father, who was having heart problems, retired from the military (as a master sergeant) and moved with the rest of my family back to Shawnee, for a calmer lifestyle.
Q: Why did you stay behind in California?
A: I was a California girl. I liked the beach. I liked the lifestyle. I even liked the crowds. My dad told me I could stay behind if I had a job, and could support myself. And I'd been working, since halfway through my senior year, as a waitress at Knott's Berry Farm amusement park. I enjoyed getting to meet people, and went on to waitress at various establishments in northern and Southern California, and in Arizona.
Q: What prompted you to join your family in Oklahoma?
A: My first husband and I relocated here from Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1979, six weeks after my oldest daughter was born, to have an affordable lifestyle and the support of family. My father since has died and my older sister lives in Austin. But everyone else still lives close, and we all gather for holidays.
Q: Can you tell us about your early career in Oklahoma — before TDK?
A: After I moved here, I immediately went to work, first at a pass-through job, taking orders at a warehouse and then my dad got me an introduction to the human resources department at Worthington Pump, where I worked seven years, moving up from inventory clerk to production planning. When the Shawnee plant closed, and the work was moved to West Virginia, I was offered a job there. But I couldn't see leaving my family.
Q: Have you had to work some funky hours?
A: Yes, when I was a first-line supervisor here in production, I worked seven at night until seven in the morning. My daughters were 6 and 11. I'd remarried, so my husband was there at night. When I got home in the morning, I'd get my girls ready for school, nap until they got home at 3:30 p.m., and then get up and be mom until it was time for me to go to work. When my girls went to college, I couldn‘t afford to help. But I'm happy to be able to help them pay off their student loans now. I have a CPA and a PA — a certified public accountant and physician assistant; theirs is the first generation in my family to graduate college.
Q: Did you ever dream you'd be president of TDK?
A: No. As production manager for five years, I was the No. 2 “man” here, but I never aspired to be president and never thought I would be, with TDK being a Japanese company and my being a woman with no college education. But when the opportunity came around, my name was thrown in the hat and my predecessor — Ron Stravlo, who retired after 15 years here — recommended me. I feel honored that the job was offered to me.
Q: Is California still your favorite place? Do you travel there frequently?
A: No, since I moved here, I've only been back twice — for high school reunions. Daytona Beach, Fla., is a favorite travel spot for my husband and me. I've traveled to TDK's sister ferrites plant in Shizuoka, Japan, several times for work, and plan to go again in September. I've loved seeing Japan's beautiful shrines and temples, come to like sushi, mainly tuna, and learned to drink sake, though I cut mine with water.