Thunder Bay Man Reaches High Position at Polaris
By Scott A. Sumner
John Corness is the Vice President, Human Resources and General Manager International Operations for Polaris Industries. The 50 year old was born and raised in Thunder Bay and has developed an exciting career that has shown him the world, manage 10,000 employees along the way and come back closer to his Thunder Bay roots.
"Im from Thunder Bay, born and raised here and went to Confederation College. I left Thunder Bay in 1980 when I was 25 years old after taking industrial relations in a three year business course," notes John Corness. "I wanted to get into labour relations and in the summer of 1980 got my first job at Canada Packers in Toronto at their biggest plant which has since closed, a large meat packing plant with a major union."
There were a lot of moves for Corness since then with Canada Packers in several different jobs over a five year period, where he ended up as HR Manager for 4 plants in Western Canada. He also worked for a company called TransAlta Utilities in Calgary which is like the former Ontario Hydro but privately owned. "In the late 1980's I was back at Canada Packers in Toronto and it went up for sale. I became concerned the head office would close and as I had a wife, kid and a big mortgage in Toronto, I went out and got a job with GE in Toronto with their major appliance division," smiles Corness." The good thing is when you do well you move, and the bad thing is when you do well you move. So I went to Louisville, Kentucky for 4 years with three different jobs, to Connecticut and had responsibility for about ten thousand people and 40 manufacturing plants. Next it was a transfer in Fairfield, Conn and then upstate New York to the GE silicone business. They did 35% of their sales in in Asia, 35% in Europe and 30% in the US. which meant I travelled a lot."
Corness met a fellow called Tom Tiller who he'd known earlier at GE where he was president of GE Silicon. In 1998 Tiller had left to go to be president of Polaris. "We both had come to the same conclusion. We both had young children and my daughter had finished grade two and three in different states. I hadn't grown up that way. I had grown up in Thunder Bay where we knew my friends, their families etc. I wanted to spend some time with my kids. Tom called me and said he could really use an HR person as we have a lot of work to do to take this company, Polaris, forward to where we needed to go. Tom offered me a job in January 1999 and I've been here for the last 6 1/2 years."
"In the last 5 or 6 years Polaris has changed drastically. When I got there it had $1 billion in sales and now it is about $2 billion, twice the size. Snowmobiles are 16% of our sales, while Atvs, motorcycles, utility vehicles and a bunch of other businesses make up for the rest," states Corness. "Snowmobiles are still a very important business. It is our heritage and a business we care about tremendously. Our president Tom Tiller is a dye hard snowmobiler. He started riding snowmobiles when he could walk and his father and grandfather were snowmobilers, so he is very passionate about the industry. Although the sport of snowmobiling has has changed tremendously over the last 5 years, we will be in the business for the long haul."
John Corness is a Canadian citizen and travels on a Canadian Passport. My wife was born and raised in Thunder Bay. I met her at Confederation College. We live in Medina, three miles from the Polaris headquarters. I lived in Toronto and we used to commute 1 hour each way to work. Now I commute 5 minutes, with 1stop signal almost like a Thunder Bay commute." notes Corness.
"Polaris has a big manufacturing plant in Roseau, MN where all our snowmobiles, 2/3rds of ATVs and 1/2 of our utility vehicles are made. There are also plants in Oschoa, Wis, Spirit Lake, Iowa where we make 1/3 of the ATVs and 1/2 of the utility vehicles and all the Victory motorcycles. There is also a distribution centre in Vermillion, South Dakota for parts, garments and accessories and an engineering centre in Wyoming, MN just north of the Twin Cities with about 200 engineers and will have 300 soon," notes Corness. "There are about 3600 employees in total now. Outside of the US we do $240 million in sales which is the size of our entire snowmobile business. We sell snowmobiles in Scandanavia and Russia, ATVs in Europe, the middle east and South Africa. In Australia and the UK and France we have wholly owned divisions and distributors that cover another 100 countries. We basically have the same products overseas. All are products are made in the US although the applications are very different. In Scandanavia for instance 40% of the marketing is wide track. They don't care how fast they go or ride on trails, everything is unbroken so they need workhorses."
"I love to snowmobile. I have a cabin 2 hours north of Medina where I keep a couple snowmobiles. This year I'll ride a Fusion 600 and 600 FST, the new 4 stroke," smiles Corness. "This is a pretty good deal. I own a camp at Hawkeye Lake here near Thunder Bay that I come up to in the summer. My parents are here and I have a brother here and my wife has a brother here. It's a great situation. Polaris is a great culture and it fits me very well. People in the midwest work hard, are honest and love the outdoors."
"The snowmobile business is pretty level. It depends on snow. If you don't have good snow people won't go out and buy a new snowmobile. We expect the business to stay where it is with a movement to 4 stroke engines, cleaner emmisions and quieter operation. That is where the industry is going. We are very confident with our technology in the pipeline," notes Corness. "About 1/2 the snowmobiles sold in the world are sold in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and then Canada. Technology is important in snowmobiling, even different than ATV or motorcycles. People love the newer technology. They are not happy riding old technology and are thirsty for new equipment."
Polaris has been a very profitable company with little debt and a clean balance sheet. "We have delivered the financial plan 29 quarters in a row, over 7 years. Our president Tom Tiller is a tremendous leader," smiles John Corness, a Thunder Bay success story.