AIKEN -- Just three months into the start-up process, the man charged with getting Bridgestone/Firestone's work force in place for the Aiken County plant has returned to his home town in Arkansas.
Howard Fikes, manager for administration, put in his last day on Monday at the Bridgestone/Firestone training center in Verenes Industrial Park and left to return to Little Rock, citing health problems of both his father and mother-in-law as reasons for leaving the company where he had been employed for less than a year.
"Howard Fikes was assembling a great start-up team, and he has already brought in some real team leaders," company spokesman John Taylor said. "He would have fit in extremely well in Aiken County, but we understand that his family comes first."
Mr. Taylor, however, emphasized that there would be no slow down in the screening and hiring process begun by Mr. Fikes and Tak Aoki, assistant to Bridgestone/Firestone president Kenji Shibata.
"There is such a a demand for Bridgestone/Firestone tires that we can't allow anything to slow us down," Mr. Taylor said.
He would not speculate on when Mr. Fikes successor would be named but said Mr. Aoki has assumed Mr. Fikes' responsibilities until his replacement can be found.
In August, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. announced plans to build a $435 million passenger and light truck manufacturing plant in Graniteville. The plant, which will initially employ 300 to 400 associates, is set to begin production in the spring of 1999. By the year 2000, company officials predict the work force will have risen to 800.
Liz Victor, local Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman, said Mr. Fikes was hired shortly before the company made the announcement.
"He was hired specifically for the start-up position and had been with the company only a few months when he resigned," Mrs. Victor said.
The Arkansas native had presided over five plant start-ups before coming to Aiken County. He had been employed by Orbit Valve, a Little Rock firm, prior to his employment with Bridgestone/Firestone.
His wife Sherry and daughter Aliene remained in Little Rock but were expected to join him in January after Aliene completed high school.
Meanwhile, Mr. Taylor said the company will "maintain the rigorous hiring procedures Howard established while he was in Aiken." A human resource staff of eight now operates the Aiken training center and 36 service technicians are expected to begin training the first week in January.
At the plant site in Sage Mill Industrial Park in Graniteville, the gravel has been poured, the footings are in, and the first steel beams are expected to start going up by Monday, a good two weeks ahead of schedule.