My Wabash Story: Rhonda Yarbrough

  • Diversity & Inclusion
by Aidan Freeman | Sep 18, 2023

Adapting to change is never easy. Whether it is physical or emotional it comes with its own set of struggles. In Rhonda Yarbrough’s experience it came through the constant cycling of positions, forcing her to adapt to change and learn new skills altogether. As a Wabash employee for 26 years, she’s aided multiple departments and built an impressive skillset.

Rhonda grew up in Harrison, AR, the same town where her Wabash story began. She met her husband in 1986 and the two soon settled roots in her hometown. As time went on they grew as a family, constantly bouncing around their responsibilities as they came. He would work and she would take care of the kids. As finances for the family grew more pressing, she saw the need to explore employment opportunities with flexibility to work around her husband’s schedule and still be home for her children.

"We never had a daycare," she said. "I had two boys and one girl, so it was more of a convenience [to work at Wabash]. It was definitely hard, but we made it work."

Rhonda started as a smooth knot operator at the Wabash Harrison location in 1997, which was under a different parent company at the time. She was grateful for the opportunity, but it required a bit more balance in her and her husband’s day-to-day lives. They would take turns swapping responsibilities on the off days. He would work Monday through Thursday and she would work Friday through Sunday, and whoever was home would look after the children.

Rhonda recalls her early experiences with the small plant. She mentioned that walking into the plant was "overwhelming and kind of scary at first."

"I remember coming in, and we would have to walk over moving tables with wood on them to get to our stations," she mentioned. “We thought that was normal, but oh, my gosh, we’ve come so far in terms of safety. People walking on tables or throwing wood—that would never fly, not now."

Despite the challenge of the work environment, there was a constant that kept her coming back: the people. Rhonda shared that the employees around the plant were "great people" and "enjoyable to be around." They created a collaborative atmosphere where they encouraged growth and teamwork.

"For a new person coming in here, it was just overwhelming. But these folks were welcoming people," she said. "The employees I worked with were and are great people. Some of them are still here."

As a smooth knot operator, Rhonda cut the defects out of the wood that would later go onto the glue line to be assembled into flooring. Wabash purchased the Harrison plant in 1998. For Rhonda, that meant the promise of new opportunities in a multitude of departments. She was promoted to production coordinator for the third shift glue line, making Wabash Harrison history as the first official female coordinator, a title that Rhonda wears proudly.

"It was encouraging to get that role," she stated. "I did get some pushback, but it was just one of those things that made me stronger. I wanted to prove that I’m worth it and that I deserved to be in this position. I wanted to encourage more women to get into these kinds of roles."

In 2000, Wabash expanded its operations with a new production building, stationed directly next to the one where Rhonda’s team was operating.

"Oh, I remember watching them doze it and build it from the ground up," she recalled. "We were excited! This was a new plant, and everyone wanted to be over there, and nobody wanted to be in the dinosaur plant anymore."

It wasn’t long before Rhonda joined the ranks of employees transitioning over to the new plant and brought a great deal of responsibility with her. Her new responsibilities challenged her with a multitude of changes that she was confident she could overcome. From her position as a production coordinator, she was moved to overseeing the lumber yard during an interim period. After the vacancy was filled, she transferred to coordinating the rough mill at the newly erected plant. As rough mill coordinator, she made sure the lumber that came into the plant was in the correct bunks and was cut and sanded to the correct width and thickness before it was sent to the Auto Defect Department. These were just a few of the challenges she faced, and she took each one in stride, not willing to let any opportunity slip past her.

"I really love learning things," said Rhonda. "I want to know the whole department, the whole business, you know? I figure the more knowledge you have about the company, the more value you add to that company."

As a coordinator, her responsibilities pay homage to her first role, but with a bit more emphasis on the well-being of those she oversees. She takes pride in the fact that she’s a coach, a mentor, and a teacher, always looking for ways to find the good in those who come into the plant. She’s a major advocate for our Building Remarkable Teams principle and a firm believer that "without a team, you’re just going to fall apart."

"You just kind of have to read people, because for some people, this is their first job," she said. "They might be scared to death. You have to find the good in something they do and encourage them to come out of their shell."

Rhonda attributes her ability to create remarkable teams to the experiences provided to her at Wabash. During her time, she had the opportunity to participate in leadership training classes, including the Dale Carnegie Course. She stated that it taught her that she "can change the whole situation of an issue by the way [she] approaches it." She also shared a real-world example of the lessons she applied to her practice:

"One of the employees that worked for me was a really shy guy," she said. "He didn’t really like to be in the middle of everything. So, I talked to him and found out he tinkers with cars. We all started to take an interest in his interests, talking to him and encouraging him to bid on the maintenance technician position. I can’t tell you how excited he was when he was chosen for that role."

Rhonda believes that to some people, many jobs can start out as a paycheck, but it’s "the environment that gives them a sense of belonging." Every day, she’s working closely with her team to make sure the new hires feel welcome, to come out of their shell, and to challenge them to want more for themselves.

"In the 26 years I’ve been here, we have some of the greatest leaders, production coordinators, maintenance workers, plant managers, supervisors, and HR partners that I’ve ever seen in terms of leadership and support," she said. "When I lost my mom and sister, this place was amazing with support. Sure, we have a business to run, but Wabash still connects to us on a human level. Not a lot of companies do that."

Rhonda's motivation to stay in her role as a production coordinator comes from a passion for what she does and a love of her team. She and her husband have found a comfortable balance in their work-life endeavors, and today she's the proud grandmother of three grandchildren.

We asked Rhonda if she had any advice for those looking to get started in their career:

"When you first start [your career], take advantage of any programs that are offered. With Wabash, you could grow so much in this company. Enjoy coming to work, wherever it is. Enjoy the people you work with and get to know them. Just get out of your comfort zone and push yourself a little bit. When you come into a new job, role, or whatever, don’t let things intimidate you because sometimes they’re too small to worry about. Ask questions! Here, we do great things. We like people to be a part of our team. In my 26 years, I have nothing negative to say, you know? I really don’t."

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