DETROIT — Larry Hamilton of Textron Automotive Co. Inc. likened automakers' new push to set up an umbrella Internet trading site to the moves of the Roadrunner of cartoon fame. General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG are racing to start their "superexchange," with grand plans to sign up more than 500 Tier 1 suppliers, wipe out the advances of other fledgling dot-com trading companies and even take their new effort public.
But auto part suppliers, in Hamilton's terminology, feel a lot like the cartoon Coyote who can't keep the same pace as his rival.
"We just can't strap a rocket on our backs and catch the Roadrunner," Hamilton said March 6 during an e-business luncheon panel in Detroit in conjunction with the Society of Automotive Engineers' SAE 2000 World Congress. "We'd run into the wall."
Hamilton, vice president of information systems at Troy, Mich.-based Textron, expressed the view of many on the panel: Plastics processors and other suppliers are wary of being locked in to a single purchasing exchange — or locked out of others — that will not bring the best price or value for their products.
Yet, automakers are telling their suppliers not to be so quick to react. The collaborative exchange is fresh off the shelf, announced by automakers Feb. 25. The joint exchange does not even have a name yet and is rhetorically referred to as "Newco."
Nor have plans been announced to buy every part and material over the single Web portal.
"Our portal will be a tool for online communication," said Alice Miles, president of Ford B2B ConsumerConnect, the automaker's e-business initiative. "People shouldn't really lose any sleep over that one."
But the question remains how much purchasing eventually will be done over the automakers' Web exchange. Buying paper clips and commodity items is one thing. But engineered resins and complex parts are quite another, said David Strickler, equity analyst with New York-based First Union Securities Inc.
"It's a very scary thought to suppliers to use this Web to buy non-commodity items," Strickler said. "The threat is in buying lowest-common-denominator products based on price and not on quality or engineering concerns. There are a lot of unknowns, and that's where fear comes in."
Initially, the exchange will go after lower-hanging fruit, such as office supplies and other indirect materials, Miles said. And it will help connect the supply community to automakers, she said.
"It's been blown all out of proportion that this will be the secret weapon used to beat suppliers over the head," said Peter Weiss, DaimlerChrysler project manager of e-Extended Enterprise. "That's not the goal at all. What we are trying to do is connect the supply chain, the tiers beyond [the largest suppliers], to increase efficiency."
Automakers on the panel — sponsored by Troy-based Original Equipment Suppliers Association and Ernst & Young LLP — did their best to salve supplier worries as they laid out more specifics for the new exchange.
But they also went on the offensive. Their target: the multitude of online auction and private trade exchanges, such as FreeMarkets Inc. and PlasticsNet.Com, which hope to command a large share of the commodity buying market.
The automotive universe is vast. Combined, the three carmakers manage more than $1.7 trillion in annual purchases. The new exchange is expected to generate $1.3 trillion in sales over the next four years.
The site aims to circumvent the growth of other trade exchanges, several of which already have gone public. Automakers won't cede the market to those Web players, Miles said.
Currently, no clear leaders exist in automotive business-to-business work, Weiss added. However, some of them want to become the AOL or Microsoft of the business world, he said.
With its industry knowledge, automakers can do a better job understanding supplier and customer needs than a more impersonal Internet firm, Miles said.
"If we sat back and waited, [other trading companies] would be just too big," Miles said. "Somebody would have stepped into this place."
Until Feb. 25, GM and Ford had planned to go it alone with Internet-based trading sites, working respectively with technology providers Commerce One Inc. and Oracle Corp. DaimlerChrysler had yet to announce a vendor arrangement for online trading.
But the tables were abruptly turned with the announcement of the combined effort, potentially the world's largest business-to-business online trading site. Those automakers now are seek-ing at least one major Asian carmaker to join their exchange.
During the next three months, the firms plan to firm up many details of the exchange before making an initial public offering.
That work includes setting up an organizational foundation, creating a price structure, cementing planned roll-out dates and completing IPO plans, said A. Alan Turfe, executive director of GM TradeXchange, that firm's business-to-business supplier site.
The joint exchange's success with suppliers could hinge on how good a job automakers do in forming their plans in the next 90 days, said Raymond W. Pollard, director of global strategies alliances for GM TradeXchange, in an interview after the talk.
"If we give value to suppliers, we'll be successful," Pollard said. "But we have a lot of work to do. We don't take anything for granted."
But the question remains whether suppliers will respond to that earnestness without automakers using strong-arm tactics to get them to join.
Some suppliers on the panel seemed almost to relish the thought of, for once, being a customer to automakers instead of working to supply them.
"It could make us strong and tough, but it could also make us weaker," said Ted Wozniak, vice president of information technology for Magna International Inc. of Aurora, Ontario. "They have to figure out how to keep me as a customer and make it so I want to come back to the exchange."
The automotive exchange has a huge set of hurdles to overcome, Wozniak said. That includes technology thorns, such as setting up large volumes of routers and servers to connect to suppliers.
In addition, suppliers must realize some value, whether it be cost savings or time reduction, in using a one-for-all Web site, Wozniak said.
To do that, carmakers must be willing to exchange and share information on a real-time basis, much like suppliers are asked to do now, he said.
But purchasing costs for suppliers could be the real sticking point, said James Woodward, director of e-commerce for Toledo, Ohio-based Dana Corp. Based on a study by investment house Goldman Sachs & Co., companies could save about 6.2 percent by moving to a business-to-business model, Woodward said.
Most of those savings will come from supply-chain management issues, such as integrating Dana plants on one site, he said. The costs of transacting purchases over the "superexchange" amount to only about 1.5 percent of that total, he said.
Commissions and fees charged to use the exchange could eat up any potential savings, Woodward said. Automakers are talking of tagging on a 1 percent transaction fee to conduct purchasing over its site.
"The issue is what level of business is required for that to make sense," Woodward said.
He also cautioned that companies should not jump into online trading just for technology's sake. Supply-chain visibility will be crucial to success, he stressed.
Automakers deflected several questions. Several audience members asked whether they could buy an equity stake in the soon-to-be-public firm, and the panelists said that was being discussed but had not yet been decided.
Others wondered whether this would further shrink the number of suppliers, a trend that has escalated during the past few years. The new exchange should instead help further growth among suppliers who connect early and learn to use e-business, Miles said.
But outside analyst Strickler said a mega-exchange could benefit larger suppliers the most. Those able to bid on higher-volume contracts could be rewarded from the joint-exchange approach. And larger companies are better able to be drop prices in an auction environment, he said.
"It means the supply base now must be a volume producer," Strickler said. "Small manufacturers could be left out in the cold if they don't have the capabilities to bid on large contracts."
All of which led Hamilton of Textron to go back to the Roadrunner-Coyote analogy. The superexchange could face as many pitfalls moving from ideal to reality as the coyote does in chasing down the Roadrunner, he said.
"It might be a coyote in Roadrunner clothing," Hamilton said.