Director of Automotive Strategy, Acxiom
"I followed a girl to Detroit; that's where it all started."
Steve Schmith was paying his way through college working at Olive Garden when he met a girl. "I had been working there a couple of years and had just clocked in for a normal shift. I walked around the corner, and there she was on her first day training. I knew right then she was the one. Seven years later and a move to Detroit, we got married.”
Looking back he says that was likely the most influential moment that sparked a lifelong career in the automotive industry. He’s always been a good storyteller and it’s something that has served him well in a journey that has included being a communications specialist at an automotive supplier, nearly two decades with Deloitte and a stint at Automotive News. All of that has led Steve to head up Industry Strategy for Automotive at Acxiom. We had the privilege of hearing Steve’s story. A story that naturally includes lessons learned, challenges overcome and successes celebrated over the years. But also a story filled with layers of being human; growth that comes from experiences and wisdom, mistakes made and striving to help others not make those same mistakes, encouraging people to try new things. “Afterall,” he says, “what’s the downside? Failure? So what, it happens to everyone.”
That’s a side of Steve that is not always obvious. If you know Steve, you know he has a lot of energy. He has competed in triathlon since 2009, in addition to leading and moderating industry-defining panels, authoring thought leadership, and sharing points of view on industry trends and the impact on automotive brands throughout the value chain .
It all began when Steve walked over to the Mass Communications Building at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville (SIUE). “I had found my people, after spending three years studying nursing” he smiled. “I remember doing reel-to-reel,” Steve explains how you would physically cut and attach pieces to splice tapes. He studied journalism and loved writing, television, and radio production. The “mix of storytelling” had impacted him; he had found his calling, which would serve as a strong foundation for his career.
“You have to be a good storyteller. Whatever the medium, or audience, and what I studied served me well.”
Steve had walked past so many posters in the halls of journalism school, posters for the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, “nobody moved to Detroit,” he smiled. Three years later, his life would change.
“She calls me, and she asks, you want to go?”
Steve’s future wife had just been promoted and given responsibility for the state of Michigan. One U-Haul, one car-on-a -trailer, one Prince tennis bag, and a one-way ticket to Detroit later, and Steve had found himself witnessing snow, in May.
Our first weekend in Detroit together, we hopped in my car and decided to drive around. We found ourselves at a coffee shop in Dearborn, MI flipping through the classifieds, and there was a job for a communication specialist at a very small auto supplier that did outsourced purchasing for some of Detroit Three automakers at the time. I knew nothing about the industry, absolutely nothing. I applied at multiple places, but I remember this one in particular. I called them every Monday. They hired me and gave me a chance.
“Ultimately, that started my career in automotive and marketing communications.”
I learned a lot about the industry, and quite frankly, looking back, I think procurement was probably the best place in the automotive value chain, at least for me, to start. It exposed me to how that entire value chain was structured. Suppliers, tier one, tier two, OEMs, the importance of supply chain, manufacturing, and all of the components of the ecosystem. It was a really good company, and I spent five years with them.
“I don’t think I had an appreciation or a clear pathway to what my career could be until 2003.”
Steve cites the culture at Deloitte as one of the biggest influences in his career.
“The investment, the challenges, the people,” he shares, “this is leadership, this is how to build relationships, this is how you think strategically.”
I learned how to work with people who have different chemistries, and it’s literally that, we all have different DNA. How you bring people together, and in terms of shaping who I am as a professional and a leader, I attribute all of that to the Firm and its commitment to every one of its individuals. It was there where I had that a-ha moment. I began to develop in automotive, working with big brands, working with some of the smartest people I have ever met, and they invited me into the room, not just to listen but to share my ideas. The exposure you get and the opportunity to view things through a different lens has shaped me.
“I had a choice to make.”
The tutelage, the trust, 17 years of exposure and growth, and the ability to build relationships in automotive had transformed Steve.
Marketing and consulting were within Steve’s capabilities, but they were not his defining identity. After 17 years with Deloitte, Steve realized that he was, at his core, an automotive professional.
I had to ask myself, do I love the Firm enough to do something else to achieve a title? Or do I leave, use what I learned, and not lose sight of what turned out to be the most important thing to me: 20 years of relationships I had established in the automotive industry?
I was at a crossroads, and it was either staying with a company or within the industry.
I chose to stay with the industry.
Automotive News was looking for somebody to lead their Data Center.
Steve started his journalism education, walking the halls of SIUE looking at posters advertising internships at the Detroit News and the Free Press. He had during his time at Deloitte led the Firm’s relationship with Automotive News and leading the data center felt like the right next move for his career. It was both new and nostalgic "to be back in the newsroom."
"Seventeen years with a company can create blinders and in some cases a sense of comfort. It wasn't until I made the move to Automotive News that those blinders came off that I looked up and could listen to my gut much more."
The newsroom is literally a newsroom, and they were passing articles over the walls saying, "hey, can you edit this?' It's a very close-knit group of people; the best journalists in the automotive industry. I was there for about a week until COVID hit. The question then becomes, how do you help strategically lead a business through these major changes? I learned a lot there. I was trusted to co-host the Automotive News Daily Drive Podcast and to be the Director of the PACE Program which is their program which celebrates early-stage, supplier-led innovation. Those opportunities gave me the chance to talk to and learn from a lot of people and be at the forefront of very cool innovation underway in the industry. We explored the science behind making EV batteries, how connected technologies could save lives, investments in advanced manufacturing, navigating some very turbulent times and how the deprecation of third-party cookies was forever going to change digital marketing. All of that, says Steve, continued to prepare him for the role he has today at Acxiom.
“I am more tuned in, and I listen more to my intuition.”
I found myself at a crossroads again, sooner than I expected. I read this job description from Acxiom, and it is exactly right. Thought leadership, industry strategy, strong industry relationships, and media representation. I get a call, and they begin to illustrate the role in more detail: a perfect hybrid of my experience at both Deloitte and Automotive News.
The work to be done drew me to the role, it sounded challenging. I had heard about the digital transformation underway in digital marketing from guests on the podcasts. The team at Automotive News was itself working through that transformation. For me, it was about the opportunity to continue growing that was very appealing. And I knew this was where the industry was going. Questions around how you create personal consumer experiences when shopping for a car, how you create experiences as the inside of your car becomes an environment. As you look to the future, the necessity to own a car continues to diminish. We just had this conversation on stage at CES 2023. It's not going to take one brand; it's going to be this ecosystem of brands coming together to create these experiences.
So this is the perfect spot for me. It is what I studied to do. It's my calling, and in a culture that I love.
“I am in an industry that I love, with people, a team that is world-class and a brand that I love.”
I think what really matters is acknowledging the people behind the scenes who allow us to commit and integrate the way we do. The support at home is incredibly important. My journey started with my wife, and now my son is heading off to the same school that started it all for me.
What continues to resonate throughout this interview series is the humanness, the human centricity, of everyone we meet.
As Steve shared how his family have shaped his journey, and continue to do so, it becomes evident that the network we create around us, and the interconnectedness of it all comes down to human beings, telling human stories.
Steve’s story is one we have loved to tell.
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