Thomas Evans, new chairman and chief executive officer of automotive supplier Collins & Aikman Corp., likes sports analogies.
Evans, who joined the firm April 22, summed up his new employer — in the midst of major restructuring — with a football metaphor.
``We've done a nice job running the ball to the 20 yard line,'' Evans said in a May 4 telephone interview from his Bloomfield Hills, Mich., office. ``Now, I'd like to score a touchdown with a new set of plays.''
Evans would like to take on a scoring mentality with customers. To do that, the firm must be regarded as a leader in technology, products and low costs, he said.
But getting there has been a bit of a struggle for the midsized interior-parts supplier. Some industry experts thought officials there would punt and sell the company after a few years of inefficiency and low profit.
Instead, the publicly held company, based in Charlotte, N.C., is trying to craft a new, unified identity as a key interiors player.
Evans said the foundation for growth had been laid before he arrived last month from Tenneco Automotive of Lake Forest, Ill., where he served as president.
Once known mainly for its vinyl-backed automotive carpeting, Collins & Aikman has acquired other product pieces in the 1990s. Work has been added in accessory floor mats, acoustical products, polyurethane foam and plastic interior trim systems.
Those plastics operations came in one big chunk in January 1996, when Collins & Aikman bought Troy-based Larizza Industries Inc. for $174 million. The purchase included Manchester Plastics Inc., a maker of molded instrument panels, door panels, consoles and interior trim.
In 1997, the trim division was renamed Collins & Aikman Plastics Inc. But even with a new name, the plastics unit was beset by ongoing operating problems. The division absorbed charges of $57.9 million in 1997 to cover costs for product delays and manufacturing inefficiency.
Still, plastics has continued its climb in both sales and stature. Last year, C&A Plastics recorded $417.5 million in sales, compared to $176.3 million for 1996.
The parent company, then based in Charlotte, N.C., also has seen its ups and downs. While total sales grew by about 12 percent in 1998, the firm recorded a loss of $3.8 million, partly from repercussions due to the strike at General Motors Corp.
Collins & Aikman recorded one more setback. The Blackstone Group, an investment firm that is one of its principal owners, had planned to purchase supplier United Technologies Automotive of Dearborn, Mich., and merge it with Collins & Aikman. But, in March, interior-systems giant Lear Corp. outbid Blackstone at the eleventh hour and signed an agreement to buy UTA.
The move would have created another major interior parts supplier, said vice president Greg Janicki of automotive-forecasting company CSM Corp. of Farmington Hills, Mich.
``Their main focus was to be a significant player in the whole interior integration game,'' Janicki said.
Without that, the firm still must prove itself, Janicki said. Too small to be a major Tier 1 molder but armed with a load of interior products that their competitors would like, the firm has difficulty finding its focus, he said.
The problem shows up on Wall Street for the publicly traded company. Few analysts follow Collins & Aikman. And its stock sells for around $5 a share, too low to please Evans.
``If we're viewed as a well-run company, we'll be able to command a premium stock price,'' he said.
Evans believes the stage has been set for a better future. In February, the firm announced it would merge its previously disparate interiors operations — carpet, acoustics, plastics and accessory mats — into single divisions in North America and Europe.
The new 60,000-square-foot North American headquarters in Troy is due to be finished this fall.
The firm has taken some risk with the move. About 500 people in Charlotte were affected: some came to Michigan, others opted for early retirement. The company said pretax costs for the restructuring plan are estimated at $14 million to $18 million. Evans is evaluating those figures.
Still, the move was also expected to save $25 million to $30 million annually by cutting administrative waste and other costs, said Dennis Hiller, president of the new North American Automotive Interior Systems Division.
Evans said the change will allow C&A to market its products as a complete interior styling system. All the firm's products, from dashboards to floor mats, contribute to the look of a car interior.
``If you can't see it, we don't want to make it,'' he said. ``And we want to specialize in sophisticated products, those that can be put together with other pieces to make something unique.''
The firm will shy away from commodity items and focus on highly engineered plastic products, he said. That could include shooting interior panels with multiple materials, finishes and colors and putting them side by side with fabric inserts on doors, seats, headliners and carpet.
To do that requires investment. The company, with less than $2 billion in annual sales, must work with a smaller budget than its mammoth Tier 1 competitors, such as Lear or Johnson Controls Inc.
Collins & Aikman has decided that, in some cases, it will be better to provide parts to larger suppliers, as a Tier 2 company, instead of directly to carmakers, Evans said.
Evans, 48, said he was seeking a fresh challenge after coming from Tenneco Inc. His former company recently spun its automotive operations to its shareholders, putting the firm into a bit of a holding pattern, he said.
``Collins & Aikman is right at the point where things are coming together,'' he said. The firm has substantial contracts over the next 2-3 years that will help sales continue to grow, he said.
The company also might expand its plastics operations, Evans said. The company has a new contract with General Motors Corp. to make complete door panels and consoles for the 2000 Cadillac Deville, Evans said. That work will take most of the space at C&A Plastics' Manchester, Mich., plant. Other work there eventually might shift to either a new location or another, expanded facility, he said.
But before moving forward too fast, the company still must work on trimming waste, he added. The company already has made great strides there to help the bottom line, he added.