Elizabethtown native Ryan Wheeler will lead the second of two plants at BlueOval SK in Glendale. The Ford Motor Co. employee will oversee operations at Kentucky 2, where batteries will be made to power Ford and Lincoln next generation of electric vehicles.
Ryan Wheeler addresses a crowd at the groundbreaking for the Elizabethtown Community and Technical College BlueOval SK Training Center in Glendale. Wheeler is plant manager for one of two plants that will produce batteries for Ford’s next generation of electric vehicles.
Gov. Andy Beshear shakes hands with Ryan Wheeler at a ground breaking ceremony for a training facility that will support BlueOval SK’s workforce in Glendale. Wheeler will lead the second of two plants at the Glendale site.
One member of BlueOval SK’s leadership has come home.
With construction of the multi-billion dollar battery park in Glendale well underway, Elizabethtown native Ryan Wheeler has returned home to lead the second of the twin battery plants.
“My wife and I originally thought we were going back to Michigan,” he said, adding the family lived in Michigan for nine years. “We were kind of excited about the idea of going back to Michigan and never really thought that battery manufacturing was in the cards.”
With that in mind and fully expecting a return to one of Ford’s Michigan plants, Wheeler received a phone call.
“Then they asked me if I had ever heard of a place called Glendale, Kentucky,” he said. “And I said, ‘Yep. I know it very well.’ ”
Wheeler said he was asked to put his name in consideration to lead one of the two plants and he said yes “without hesitation.”
Both Wheeler and his wife, Bridget, have family in the area, so after he told her, she was excited as well.
“We’ve been away from E’town for 27, 28, almost 30 years,” he said. “There’s a source of pride. … I’m proud. It’s not just personal pride. I’m proud that … these two powerhouse companies that have confidence in E’town and Glendale, enough confidence to invest almost $6 billion into this community.”
The couple returned “home” in December and is building a home for their family.
“I’m always kind of stumbling across memories,” he said, adding he’s been pointing out places that have a link to his past.
Because he travels often for work, Wheeler said he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to reconnect with old friends, especially some from his time at Elizabethtown High School, where he graduated in 1992.
“Every time I’m in town, I try to have lunch with some of my old friends,” he said. “Once the plant gets up and going, I’m not going to have a whole lot of time, so I’m trying to take advantage of the time I have right now for visiting and some of the community engagement-type stuff.”
THE BACK STORY
Wheeler wasn’t always on the road to automobile manufacturing management. He once was a standout baseball player with the Panthers with aspirations of playing professionally.
After high school, Wheeler went to Paducah Community College convinced he was going to get drafted. At the time, rules said players couldn’t be drafted until their junior year of college.
Wheeler didn’t get drafted following his sophomore season at Paducah and decided to continue his baseball career at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee.
“I didn’t have a great junior year,” he said. “Between my junior and senior year, I worked really, really hard to get myself in shape and put myself in position to get drafted.”
After a “phenomenal” senior season, Wheeler was garnering a lot of interest from major league scouts and was a 32nd round pick by the New York Yankees. He headed to spring training in Tampa, Florida.
“I learned very quickly — I’ll say it like it was — this arrogant kid who thought there wasn’t many people better than me in baseball and there were five of me standing right beside me, except they’re younger and bigger,” he said. “The competition was a little overwhelming.”
The competition “got in my head a little bit” and he played in the organization in 1996 and ’97.
A recurring shoulder injury would stunt any promise he had for a long career. He eventually was released.
“I would have sworn at the time that I would have played baseball my whole life,” he added. “I had an opportunity to play again with the Detroit Tigers, but I’m not sure why, I kind of lost my passion for baseball.”
It’s not a decision Wheeler regrets, adding “the best decision of his life” was to get married in 1998 to Bridget.
“I ended up starting at Ford Motor Co. shortly after. I look back and there are no regrets.”
PATH TO SUCCESS
Ford wasn’t the fallback plan. In fact, Wheeler said he wasn’t focused on academics as he chased his baseball career and had to go back to school to finish his degree.
“I grew up as a University of Kentucky fan, but am a closet University of Louisville graduate,” he said. “When I got done playing baseball, I ended up going to school at U of L and finished my degree in social science.”
After finishing his degree, Wheeler was looking for a job but Bridget was looking harder.
“My wife was determined to get me a real job, so she sent my resume to Ford Motor Co.,” he said.
After being being hired at Ford, he completed his MBA through a program with the company.
While Wheeler has a major league worthy work ethic, he attributes much of his success to the support he receives from his wife.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, she has been an absolute rock in my life, in my career,” he said. “My wife is the embodiment of strength.”
Wheeler said his family has had to endure a work-life imbalance that included long hours and multiple moves.
“Never once has she complained,” he said.
He said being a part of competitive sports and successful teams helped develop leadership skills.
“I’ve always tried to surround myself with good people, people with positive attitudes and a good work ethic,” he said. “The teams I’ve been on and that I try to create … it’s a team environment. We try really hard to recognize people when they do a good job.”
“It’s intentional” to recognize the wins, he added. “My teams have probably made me look better than what I am.”
Wheeler also credits the diversity of Elizabethtown and his exposure to different races and cultures as a reason he’s been able to advance in his career.
“I learned at a very young age the different perspectives that come from the different types of cultures,” he said.
Wheeler keeps a picture of his youth football team which has children of multiple races and backgrounds on the team, saying it put him at an advantage over others.
“Growing up in this environment, I think it put me at a unique advantage over some people in the corporate world because I’ve always embraced and know the importance of always having those different perspectives. I’ve always kind of surrounded myself with diversity because I know the power of it.”
Some of the kids on that team grew up to be his best friends and were part of his wedding party, Wheeler said.
“In my wedding I had my family, of course, and I had my two best friends,” he said, adding one was black and the other was a first-generation Pakistani American. “Our world could learn something from E’town.”
THE BIG ONE
Of all the challenging positions he’s had with Ford, Wheeler is not underestimating the magnitude of his new position as plant manager for Kentucky 2.
Having not shied away from tough assignments, Wheeler said this might be the toughest of all as a lot is riding on the joint venture’s success.
“This is important for our country,” he said. “We can’t fail. It’s not an option. We know that. … And we’re not going to fail.”
With the combining of two powerhouses in Ford and SK On, Wheeler said BlueOval SK is destined for success.
“We’re sending our brightest and our best people to this joint venture, and it’s going to be successful,” he said. “We have a good plan, we have a really good product, we just have to execute and we will. There’s not a doubt in my mind that we will.”
And the community will benefit from it, Wheeler said.
“I just want to reiterate to the community that this is going to be a world-class facility,” he said. “It’s climate controlled and it’s a clean-room environment.”
He hopes people who come to work at the plant can share in this sense of energy and excitement.
“I am so excited about these jobs and the opportunities that these people are going to have in this community,” he said. “I’m not just saying this as a recruiting tactic. These people are going to absolutely love these jobs.”
“I’m excited to be a part of something this good,” he added. “This is a world-class opportunity that we have in our backyard.”
Gina Clear can be reached at 270-505-1418 or email@example.com.