Local classmates emerge as industry leaders

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Nash County native Marty Nealey is vice president and site leader of Pfizer’s Rocky Mount plant.

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Marty Nealey Headshot.jpg

Special to the Telegram

Monday, October 8, 2018

They are two companies that outwardly share few similarities — one a pharmaceutical manufacturer, the other a maker of diesel engines.

But Pfizer and Cummins are both big publicly-held titans that set the pace in their respective industries. Their operations in Rocky Mount make each a top regional employer — together accounting for more than 5,000 manufacturing jobs.

And in an era when Fortune 500 executives rotate freely around the world, the companies’ two local facilities have something in common: Both are headed by homegrown leaders.

John Judd, plant manager at Cummins Rocky Mount Engine, and Marty Nealey, vice president and site leader for Pfizer’s growing local presence, are both graduates of Southern Nash High School.

“John was a classmate in high school,” Nealey says.

After the two graduated in 1987, their lives and careers took off in different directions before finally meeting up again as Rocky Mount industry leaders.

“We’ve both been very fortunate in our careers and opportunities,” Nealey says.

Judd’s family transferred to Spring Hope in 1985 from western New York, where both his parents had worked for Cummins — his father as an engineer and his mother in the human resources office.

“Marty and I knew each other in high school, but we didn’t really hang out together that much,” Judd says.

These days, the two regularly work together closely in tackling challenges for Cummins, Pfizer and the Twin Counties business community.

Having grown up on a dairy farm, Judd planned to pursue a career in agriculture, joining the Future Farmers of America, winning a state farming award and earning admission to N.C. State University.

“I thought it was definitely the path I would take,” he says.

But after graduation from Southern Nash, his plans changed. He enrolled in the industrial maintenance program at Nash Community College. Judd was hired the following year at Consolidated Diesel Co., a joint venture with Cummins that previously operated the plant.

“I decided Cummins would be the better opportunity for me,” Judd says. For one, the company helped with tuition. “It was almost like having a full scholarship.”

Judd, who holds a bachelor’s degree in management and organizational development from the University of Mount Olive, has spent his entire career at Cummins Rocky Mount. Soon after starting out on the shop floor, he became a team leader and by 1992 was promoted to team manager. He later spent five years heading up the plant’s engineering team.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” he says.

Through it all, Judd traveled across the country helping out at other Cummins facilities.

“I’ve had a bunch of different roles here,” says Judd, who spent five years as assistant plant manager prior to taking on the top job in May 2016.

Today, Cummins Rocky Mount employs about 2,100 people, including contractors and contingent workers. The business and its products have changed dramatically across Judd’s 30-year career at the facility.

“We were predominantly running two-valve diesel engines then,” he recalls.

Today’s engines have four valves. In the late 1980s, about half the plant’s engines were destined for the automotive sector, with the rest divided between buyers in agriculture and construction.

“These days about 85 percent of our market is automotive,” he says.

Also different today is the volume produced at the Rocky Mount site — 185,000 engines per year, compared to 60,000 in 1988.

Nealey’s path to the top site leader role was also linear but involved work for an array of pharmaceutical companies and roles in various parts of North Carolina and the eastern U.S.

In middle school, the Momeyer native considered becoming a lawyer. Then at Southern Nash High, Nealey’s thoughts turned to a possible career in medicine. Though he was accepted to Duke University, he enrolled instead at East Carolina University due to its sharply lower tuition.

“My family was not in a financial position that made Duke practical,” he says. “Neither of my parents were high school graduates, but they both put a high value on education for me.”

Nealey’s mother was employed as an inspector and operator at Abbott Labs in Rocky Mount, which later became the Pfizer plant her son now runs.

While majoring in chemistry at ECU, Nealey took advantage of a co-op program at Burroughs Wellcome in Greenville. In 1991, shortly before graduating, he received a permanent job offer there.

“At the time, it was Burroughs’ only manufacturing plant in the U.S, and it was a cutting-edge facility,” he says.

The site today is owned by Thermo Fisher Scientific.

“I started in the laboratories testing products,” he says. “Eventually I decided I wanted to get more involved in manufacturing and operations.”

In early 1996, Merck recruited Nealey to work as an engineer at its 10,000-employee operation in West Point, Penn.

“It was a big change for me,” he recalls.

He and his wife, Kim — also a Nash County native — lived in Pennsylvania for 12 years and enjoyed frequent trips to New York City and Philadelphia.

“Merck was and is a great company,” says Nealey, who calls West Point “an unbelievable place to work and learn.”

Nearly a decade after leaving North Carolina, he relocated to Massachusetts for a management opportunity at an AstraZeneca facility in the community of Westboro. But after just three years there, North Carolina beckoned.

“My wife was not fond of living that far north,” he says. “We got over 100 inches of snow per year there.”

Opportunity knocked in the form of an offer to run Purdue Pharma’s solid-dose manufacturing plant in Wilson.

“It was a great chance to get back home,” he says.

Purdue, a privately-held company owned by New York’s Sackler family, exposed Nealey to the inner workings of pharmaceutical company at the highest level — regularly attending senior executive and company board meetings, for example.

“In 2011, Hospira called me,” Nealey says.

After receiving several FDA warning letters, the company’s Rocky Mount plant was in trouble. Illinois-based Hospira needed an experienced plant manager to right the ship.

“I said no initially,” he says. “I knew about the challenges.”

But Hospira persisted, and Nealey finally accepted — for reasons close to his heart.

“I felt a personal connection to the plant seeing as my mother had worked here and many friends and neighbors still work here,” he says.

The move was risky, but Nealey pulled together the right leadership team and turned things around. The plant has since grown and modernized and now enjoys very successful regulatory inspections.

“In 2012, it was an aging facility and hadn’t received the right investments to keep it current,” he says. “But there were also challenges with procedures and culture.”

The facility has since added 1,000 employees to its workforce after two major expansions, built a new testing lab and significantly upgraded much of the manufacturing equipment. About $600 million has been invested in the site since Nealey took over.

Pfizer acquired Hospira’s Rocky Mount operation in late 2015.

“They were invested from day one,” Nealey says of New York City-based Pfizer.

The facility’s importance extends beyond the company.

“We manufacture approximately 25 percent of the sterile injectables in the U.S. health care system,” he says of the plant, whose product lines include morphine, pain-relieving Fentanyl and the anticoagulant Heparin. “In all, there are about 500 different critical injectable products we make here.”

Both Nealey and Judd contribute actively in their community. Both have held top voluntary leadership roles at the Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce and the Twin Counties Strategic Education Partnership, a nonprofit group that works to enhance “cradle to career” learning opportunities. Nealey joined the board of Nash UNC Health Care in 2016, while Judd coached youth baseball for the town of Nashville and serves as an usher at Church on the Rise.

In addition to seeing each other at board meetings and community events, the two meet regularly for private lunches.

“We always start socially,” Judd says.

There’s usually talk of their shared passion for hunting before the conversation turns to business — how to recruit and retain good employees, for example. Improving local education and creating a regional workforce pipeline occupy much of their collaboration.

“The alternative to the pipeline — and we have to do this occasionally — is to recruit from outside North Carolina,” Judd says. It’s not the preferred option. “You have only a 50-50 chance of keeping them after two years, just based on family ties and community.”

Judd, whose 30-year marriage to wife Diane began one week after he started at Cummins, believes he’s found the perfect job.

“I love doing what I do,” he says. His plan is to make the Cummins’ Rocky Mount plant the company’s best in terms of safety, quality and profitability. “I’d like to stay as long as I can.”

Nor does Nealey show any inclination to leave the region. He golfs with Hunter, his 15-year-old son, and the family enjoys time at their Nag’s Head getaway. He’s encouraged by Rocky Mount’s increasing vibrancy while retaining its manageable pace.

“This is an outstanding mixture of a city re-making itself and also a nice rural area where a sense of family and community is still strong,” Nealey says. “We have all intentions of staying here.”

Lawrence Bivins is a business writer and consultant in Raleigh.