KINGSPORT - Parker Smith spied the three-speed bicycle with handle bar brakes in his friend's garage and asked about it.
"He said it tore up - wouldn't shift," Smith said. "I said, â€˜You care if I look at it?' He said, â€˜Well you can have it.' I took it home and took it apart and fixed it. I was the only kid in the neighborhood with a three-speed bicycle."
Smith was just 11 years old at the time, and knew even then he wanted to be an engineer.
Today, Smith is settling into his new job as vice president and general manager of Worldwide Manufacturing Support at Eastman Chemical Co., responsible for Eastman's Tennessee and Texas operations.
Smith, 54, was named to the position earlier this year to replace Jerry Repass, who retired.
Sitting in his corner office overlooking the Holston River, Smith reflected on his life, saying he's a "little bit numb" thinking about his start in the business, and where he is today.
Smith grew up in Kingsport and graduated from Dobyns-Bennett High School in 1971. He joined Eastman as a co-op student while studying engineering at North Carolina State University.
"I've got two sisters and we're all a year apart. So my dad wound up with all three of us in college at the same time," Smith said.
By joining the co-op program, Smith was able to make enough money each semester to pay for the next semester of school. He co-oped with Eastman because he could save money by living at home.
After graduation, Smith interviewed with several companies, but decided to stay with Eastman.
"I actually took less money to come to work here out of college than some other offers that I had," Smith said. "But I had a great co-op experience with Eastman, and the further along I got, I thought, you know, this is a good company."
He started working full-time for Eastman as a mechanical engineer in 1976. In 1990, he was promoted to superintendent of the Utilities Maintenance Department, and was transferred in 1994 to Eastman's South Carolina Operations to serve as superintendent of Operations Services.
In 1999, he returned to his hometown as superintendent of the Central Maintenance and Services Division for Eastman's Tennessee Operations, with additional responsibilities of the corporate Worldwide Maintenance and Reliability team.
Now he's head of the Tennessee and Texas sites. Of Eastman's 11,000 employees worldwide, about 7,500 are based in Kingsport, and 1,475 work in Long View, Texas.
"I've just had a lot of great opportunities with the company," Smith said. "But to think that I might wind up doing this, that's a real stretch."
He said Eastman is in "exciting times," with various growth opportunities on the horizon.
But it also faces some challenges, such as dealing with its demographics. The average employee age at its Kingsport plant is 46. The average age in the Maintenance and Services Organization - which Smith formerly headed - is 48.
"We started several years ago to think about, what are we going to do to make sure we've got the work force of the future," Smith said. "That will be one of my challenges, to make sure we address that."
He said Eastman has established partnerships with Northeast State Community College in Blountville and Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, and it's developing a partnership with Walters State Community College in Morristown to help ensure it has a pool of qualified people for the future.
The company is also looking at ways it can operate more efficiently and produce more product, Smith said.
And Eastman must work to maintain its safety record. Smith said the company is "world class in our safety performance."
"But as long as there is one person out there getting hurt, we've got work to do," he said.
He said maintaining safety is like paddling upstream in a canoe.
"If you stop paddling for a second, you go back. Safety is that way," Smith said.
He said Eastman and all U.S. manufacturers face the challenge of global competition as well as increased costs for raw materials and energy.
"It's put a lot of pressure on our margins, so we've just got to do things a lot smarter and a lot more efficient in order to maintain the margins that we need to return value to our employees and our shareholders," Smith said.
He said the Kingsport site is a "huge piece of the company, and a huge piece of the profit picture for the company."
"So our challenge for the site is to continue to operate it in a manner that's safe, efficient, competitive," Smith said.
He characterized his leadership style as "engaging and participative."
"I like to be around people, to know what's going on so that if they need my help, I'm there to give them that," he said. "I tell people â€˜My door is always open.'"
He said Eastman has a "rich history of great leadership." In addition to Jerry Repass, those who previously held Smith's seat include Harry Holliman, Bill Garwood and Bob Hart.
"The guys who preceded me have set the bar really high. My personal challenge is to hopefully be as good as that bar that they've set, and I hope to push that bar up myself," he said.
Smith is active in the community, serving on the board of directors of Kingsport Tomorrow and the Sequoyah Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He also serves on the Sullivan County Career Technical Advisory Committee and the Northeast State Tech Prep Advisory Committee. He is a member of the Kingsport Kiwanis Club, First Broad Street United Methodist Church, and a volunteer at the Exchange Place.