DETROIT - GenCorp Inc., facing the loss of a major vehicle program, said it is looking at a number of options for its Reinforced Plastics Division, including the sale of the business to Cambridge Industries Inc. If the two auto suppliers can complete the deal, perhaps as early as January, Cambridge will have made another big stride in its quest to become a $1 billion company-achieving threefold growth-in the next two to three years.
GenCorp, based in Fairlawn, Ohio, has been supplying composite body panels for the General Motors Corp. minivan since 1989.
General Motors is preparing to begin pro-duction of a new-generation van in mid-1996, when it will discontinue use of sheet molding compound body panels in favor of sheet metal.
GenCorp currently makes the minivan's SMC body panels at the Reinforced Plastics Division's headquarters and plant in Shelbyville, Ind., where 800 people are employed. The division also has plants in Ionia, Mich., and Marion and Rushville, Ind.
At a Dec. 8 news conference, Cambridge President Richard Crawford confirmed the talks with GenCorp and said the two companies have discussed a deal for about a year. If the sale is completed, no announcement will come before January, he said.
The Reinforced Plastics Division, with a total of 1,100 employees, is Cambridge's largest competitor in exterior body panels, Crawford said. He declined to disclose the division's exact sales, saying the volume ranged between $100 million to $200 million.
``They clearly cement our position in the exterior market,'' Crawford said.
Although the GM minivan is its largest program, the Reinforced Plastics Division also makes a wide variety of compressionmolded SMC parts in Shelbyville for such models as the GM Corvette, Camaro/Firebird, Ford Ranger pickup truck and Chrysler Corp.'s Jeep.
The Ionia plant is where the division produces parts for heavy-truck customers, including Mack, Volvo and Kenworth. The Rushville plant, opened in late 1994, focuses on composites molding for nonautomotive businesses. The Marion plant
is where the division makes its SMC compound, a composite containing short fibers and fillers dispersed in an uncured thermosetting resin. GenCorp does not provide sales figures for its reinforced plastics unit, which is part of an automotive group that also makes sealing and vibration-control products.
For the nine-month period ended Aug. 31, the automotive group reported operating profit of $20.7 million, down 10 percent compared with the same period a year ago, on 14 percent higher sales of $475.2 million.
Also last year, GenCorp completed the $40 million acquisition of Henniges Elastomer und Kunststofftechnik GmbH, a maker of sealing products and molded components based in Rehburg, Germany. GenCorp said the Henniges deal was a key element in its strategy to grow internationally and brought it new business with Mercedes-Benz.
Expansion into the European market also is a top priority at Cambridge, based in Madison Heights, Mich. The company projects sales of about $325 million this year.
Crawford said Cambridge and other large suppliers face a ``relatively narrow window of opportunity'' to become global within the next two to three years. If that opportunity is missed, he predicted, suppliers ``will be on the outside looking in.''
Cambridge, with 3,000 employees at 11 plants in the United States and Canada, makes body panels, interior trim and a variety of structural parts such as frame cross members for chassis applications. The company also is highly diverse in the number of plastic-forming processes it uses.
Despite setbacks such as the GM minivan switch to steel, the future for SMC is bright, especially as a new generation of designers and engineers learn the ``innovative solutions'' possible with the material, Crawford said.
He compared SMC's struggle to replace steel with what has happened in auto interiors, which now are almost all plastic.
Last week, the SMC Automo-tive Alliance of Troy, Mich., said it expects total production of SMC parts to increase by 20 percent next year. The alliance, consisting of seven composites processors, said 80 new SMC appli-cations will appear in 1996.
In body panels, the alliance said four new applications involved SMC hoods for the Ford Mustang Cobra, Dodge Viper Coupe, Chrysler Sebring JX and Ford Aeromax truck.