Make haste slowly.
The loosely translated Japanese expression means to move quickly but cautiously. It is a term used regularly by Atsuhiko Fujii, president of Gifu Seiki USA Inc. in Sterling Heights, Mich.
In Fujii's case, it refers to his newly minted North American business. The Japanese-affiliated toolmaker wants to build medium-sized molds for the automotive industry but not venture hastily into other tools. The firm does business with two Japanese transplant companies but has not yet approached Big Three automakers.
Above all, one of the few Japanese-owned tooling shops in North America, wants to make haste while avoiding stepping on the toes of his U.S. brethren.
``We want to prove that we can be called the No. 1 mold builder in North America by our customers,'' Fujii said. ``But we also are very cautious not to take business away from existing mold builders. We can handle some of the increased demand for mold supply sources.''
Currently, the company is virtually an island unto itself. While Japanese-affiliated automakers and Tier 1 suppliers have sliced a major piece of North American business, the same cannot be said of those lower on the supply food chain.
Specifically, there has been little advancement in the ranks of Japanese-based plastic injection molders and mold makers for the North American auto industry, said Etsuko Barrows, general manager of research group Elm International Inc. in East Lansing, Mich.
``Very small companies are not able to come here by themselves,'' said Barrows, whose company publishes a study of Japanese-affiliated auto suppliers in North America. ``They need a joint venture partner, like a Honda [Motor Co. Ltd.] or a Toyota [Motor Corp.] to help them get started.''
Moreover, the U.S. government is exerting pressure on suppliers to maintain a local content level, Barrows said. That means a certain percentage of business must be done with Big Three carmakers.
``To survive, you just can't be working with Japanese companies,'' Barrows said.
Barrows said she could count only about 20 Tier 2 suppliers making parts for larger supply companies. In contrast, about 300
Japanese-affiliated Tier 1 suppliers work with automakers in North America, she said.
Some are making the transition. For instance, Greenville Technologies Inc., an injection molder in Greenville, Ohio, has picked up new business with General Motors Corp. in the past three years to go with its existing mix of Japanese transplants.
Still, the company received its main push in a joint venture with Honda of America Manufacturing Co. when it came to the United States a decade ago. Three years later, its Tokyo-based parent, Moriroku Co. Ltd., bought Honda's shares, according to executive vice president William LaFramboise.
``Honda has always been our main customer but it's been good to diversify our product mix,'' said LaFramboise, whose firm makes both interior and exterior auto parts. ``There's certainly a Japanese influence to our management style but it's taking on more of an American flavor.''
Moriroku, which has 55 presses with clamping forces of 35-1,200 tons, has seen sales jump to $98 million from $82 million in 1995.
Meanwhile, toolmakers such as Gifu Seiki also look to expand in North America. The firm has deep pockets: Its parent company, Gifu Seiki Kogyo Co. Ltd. of Gifu, Japan, is the largest toolmaker in Japan, with more than $90 million in 1996 sales, Fujii said.
In America, the 60-person operation has spent about $10 million on equipment since leasing a building in suburban Detroit in March 1996.
Gifu Seiki's investment includes adding a large computer-aided design and manufacturing area, a separate production scheduling area, eight computer numerically controlled milling machines and four electric discharge machines. Two presses with clamping forces of 200 and 1,500 tons provide testing and verification.
The 45,000-square-foot plant veers in several areas from most North American tool shops.
First, a production scheduling department is organized to track each project meticulously on detailed wall charts. Also, Japanese language lessons are given twice a week, preparing employees for frequent video conferences with Gifu management in Japan.
``This is the mecca of the automotive industry,'' Fujii said. ``We can mix Japanese and American mold technology to come up with global molding processes. We intend to have good communications with other mold builders and share resources.''
The company, which expects sales of $8 million this year, is one of the few Japanese toolmakers to have the resources to make the leap West, Fujii said.
That fact is borne out by the National Tooling & Machining Association in Fort Washington, Md. The trade association has seen few Japanese-affiliated tool and die or molding shops in North America, said marketing director Thomas Garcia.
``There's always concern by our members about foreign competition in this country,'' Garcia said. ``But we haven't seen too much of it from Japan, at least up to this point.''