DETROIT — Three years ago, Valencia Norman lived a meager life. The 23-year-old was trying to raise her five children on public assistance. Her low-income, Detroit neighborhood was riddled with drug traffickers, prostitution rings, ex-jailbirds and unrelenting crime.
Today, Norman works at Vitec LLC, a minority-owned joint venture that makes plastic fuel tanks. It is five minutes from her former home. She has a good job as a quality lab technician and a new home in a safer Detroit suburb. Her life has been altered, her dreams rescued.
"Socially, I'm meeting a different crowd of people and being exposed to things I hadn't seen before," Norman said. "Doors are open for advancement. It's just wonderful, and I'm thankful."
Norman's turnaround story also sparks William Pickard, Vitec's chairman and chief executive officer. Pickard, an African-American, owns a majority stake in six joint-venture companies, including Vitec. The firms were united under one broad umbrella, called the Global Automotive Alliance LLC, in May 1999.
But as large as his new bundle of companies is — and together they expect to record about $300 million in sales this year — Pickard is most proud of the human details.
Norman's story, recounted by Pickard over a lunch-time visit, says a lot about the dollars-and-sense purpose of minority supplier programs, he said.
"The [auto industry] has to reach people at the low end of the economic spectrum," Pickard said. "If they don't, they're losing a lot of business. And if someone [in an urban area] is making parts for a Ford product, for example, they're probably going to buy a Ford car."
While that philosophy fuels automakers, it has helped Pickard grow one of the country's largest minority-owned companies. An entrepreneur by nature who has owned fast-food restaurants, Pickard started Regal Plastics Co. Inc. in Roseville, Mich., in 1985.
After encountering some early-1990s financial bumps, the injection molding company has bounced back to become a multiple winner of General Motors Corp.'s supplier of the year award. Regal's current annual sales are about $40 million.
Through better financial controls and attention to detail, the company made a strong comeback, said Ray Rogal, Regal's chief operating officer and a former GM executive. The molder also took on some temporary contracts that helped restore customer credibility, he said.
Pickard has invested in ventures with other leading suppliers. In addition to Vitec and Regal, his businesses include:
Camrose Technologies LLC of Ada, Okla., an exterior-parts venture with Ventra Group Inc.
Commonwealth Regal Industries Inc. of Tecumseh, Ontario, a parts assembly venture with Versatech Industries Inc.
ARD Logistics LLC of Suwanee, Ga.
Primera Automotive Systems LLC of Wayne, Mich., a plastic headliner venture with Grupo Antolin North America.
The Vitec operation is one of the alliance's crown jewels. The fuel-tank supplier is owned by Pickard, investor Lawrence Crawford and fuel-systems supplier TI Group Automotive Systems of Warren, Mich.
Vitec, located on the site of a razed Cadillac assembly plant in a downtrodden section of Detroit, has amassed several large contracts with both GM and DaimlerChrysler Corp. All together, those five-year contracts are worth close to $800 million. And Ford business is expected, Pickard said.
The 147,000-square-foot plant dashes the myth that carmakers pass only elementary work to their minority-owned suppliers.
The plant blow molds complex, six-layer tanks, and then fits the parts with 25 separate components.
The plant will make more than 70,000 fuel tanks a month once new contracts kick in this summer.
The plant uses two Krupp Kautex coextrusion blow molding machines. About 80 percent of the plant's 170 employees are minorities from the nearby community.
"We have a facility to rival any of our competitors," said Vitec President Robert Huebner. "Nobody can question our quality or performance."
Vitec, which started production in April 1999, expects sales of $125 million this year, he said.
Other pieces of the Global Automotive puzzle have differing stories. Camrose, formerly J.P. Emco Inc., was a distressed company refreshed by new management and quality controls. Defects have dropped from 3,000 parts per million two years ago to 36 parts per million last year, Rogal said.
Others are start-up operations. But all told, the companies offering a broad base of products and services under one, newly shingled roof.
With carmakers looking for suppliers with the critical mass to support major programs and move globally, the move made sense, Pickard said.
"It gets us to another level of integration," Pickard said. "We can't do as much as individual, small companies regardless of our growth. This gives us the size we need."