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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Taking It In(house)

Automotive suppliers in North America continue to face many challenges. First, they are capital constrained at a time when the “factory” is trying to build more vehicles – it is not just the odd “hot” car that is in short supply, it is entire brands. Second and surprisingly, the past 18 months’ turmoil facilitated new entry. The French firm Faurecia is an example, since it was (at least in relative terms!) cash-rich and scooped up several suppliers that were in temporary trouble. That immediately expanded Faurecia’s customer base, and since they (like many suppliers) are emphasizing new technologies, such access to the purchasers and engineers at target customers is important.1 Finally, at least in the United States, there remain both incentives to as well as increased potential for assemblers to pull work in-house.
Ford is explicit in this. Mark Fields, their President for the Americas, notes they will add 635 jobs to undertake work currently done by suppliers (Automotive News, 9 August 2010, p. 8). This represents a reversal of trends over the past 15 years, when among other things GM and Ford spun off the bulk of their parts operations into (respectively) the supposed-to-be-independent firms Delphi and Visteon. Both ended up in Chapter 11, and in both cases their former parent companies bought back or otherwise propped up some of the factories they had spun off. Now GM appears to have found purchasers for some of those (e.g., the former Saginaw Steering), but they remain the lender of last resort to more suppliers than they would like. So not all of the reversal was undertaken willingly, and thus may in due course be reversed. However, Ford in particular continues to have the issue of legacy costs, since it did not go through bankruptcy. If it can avoid offering early retirements and rehire some of those on extended layoff, then those “legacy” costs fall on a per-vehicle basis.
At the same time, the UAW made major concessions, permitting two-tier wage structures. That means that bringing work in-house is more attractive as a commercial proposition, particularly when suppliers are unionized or otherwise have a labor cost approaching that of new “Detroit 3” hires. Ford has already pulled work in-house. Locally, the Strasburg VA facility of International Automotive Components used to make door panels for the F-150, at the rate of one every seven seconds; Ford now does that work itself. Labor costs weren’t the only issue; at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, the Strasburg plant is no longer well-placed geographically, as all the east-coast assembly plants, including the former Ford truck plant in Norfolk, VA, are now shuttered.2 Now none of the plant’s customers are within an 8-hour drive. Indeed, most of their output gets exported to Ontario, a long haul from here, made worse by the need to skirt first mountains and then Lake Erie.
Now at another level the organizational structure that made albatrosses of the plants handed over to Delphi and Visteon remains. In-house suppliers will remain unionized, and executives will have incentives to “game the system” by skewing head counts and pushing for internal transfer prices that cloud the real costs of such operations. Furthermore, it is very hard to create incentives that encourage innovation, absent arms-length price setting for transactions and wage setting that need not follow larger corporate norms. So how well things will work really is an issue of management discipline. In the early days of GM under Alfred Sloan, senior management had hands-on engineering and operational experience. They could and did intervene, even while implementing a structure of divisionalization that on paper tasked senior executives with strategic tasks and divisions with operational tasks. But once the locus of power shifted to finance–an inevitable trend as that’s the only common language shared by the divisions of large corporations–then things gradually deteriorated. Shifting work to “out-house” suppliers was, uh, something that smelled bad to all concerned: the line executives, the unions, engineering staffs and even corporate staffs, threatening power and perks. Costs (and in the old days, quality problems) could be passed on to the assembly operations and the customer.
Those concerns aren’t central in the short run of one or two model cycles–as long as the wage gap between incumbents and new hires does not create too much friction. To the extent that new hires work in new operations, Ford and others can finesse that, because they can keep the two groups from mixing. Where such control issues are a problem may ironically be Toyota: over the past two decades, it has had a hard time finding places to invest its hoard of cash. One thing it did do was build up stakes in suppliers, which it believed (with some justification!) would offer better returns than Japanese financial markets. Furthermore, growth was at Lexus. Rumors I’ve heard in my wanderings among suppliers make me suspect that the pressure to pinch pennies fell by the wayside–plus engineers and purchasers were just plain busy, and watching costs took time they didn’t have.
The Detroit 3 should not emulate Toyota. Instead, they should let suppliers be suppliers.
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Notes
  1. I am a judge for the Automotive News PACE supplier innovation competition, doing vetting visits to 2-3 finalists a year for the past 15 years. During that time innovation went from undertaken reluctantly and irregularly because the product line or company was at risk to a core (or the core) element of corporate strategy.
  2. See joint work by James Rubenstein of Miami [of Ohio] University and Thomas Klier at the Chicago Fed, check the link at right for several  working papers and Fed publications.
Mike Smitka