PENDLETON, IND. - A pair of headlights illuminate the dark country road.
They lead the way over hills, around curves, past signs and railroad tracks. There are cracks in the pavement and stains on the asphalt. After a few moments, they slow down and make a sharp left into a driveway, where the light bounces off a garage door.
Then the screen goes blank as Vic Bushfield, a visualization engineer for Guide Corp., clicks a few keys on the laptop perched on a conference table at Guide's new technology center in Pendleton, where the drive exists only in the digital domain of a computer program.
A few seconds later, Bushfield has loaded the specifics of a different set of headlights into the system.
The scene repeats, another trip down the same virtual road, with the same virtual curves, hills and railroad tracks, but with the beam from another prototype headlight design. Finally he runs the two prototypes side-by-side, allowing an instant comparison of headlight designs.
Neither the headlights nor the road exists in reality, but the program is at the center of a very real plan to re-create Guide from the beleaguered offspring of General Motors Corp. into a lean and technology-focused supplier.
It has been nearly four years since GM sold off its lighting division and less than six months since its first owner, Palladium Equity Partners LLC, sold it once again, claiming it could not make a profit with the operation in today's cost-cutting automotive industry.
But management maintains it can create a strong business model for Guide by using and creating new systems to improve both automotive lighting production and design.
``The ownership has changed, but the vision has been the same: to build a company driven by technology,'' Jeffrey D. Mickel, senior vice president of engineering sales and marketing, said during a June 6 interview at the company's multimillion dollar technology complex.
``This building is a very physical example of that.''
Engineers, designers and corporate leaders had just moved into the building in Pendleton - just south of Guide's manufacturing center in Anderson, Ind. - when the company went through a management shake-up.
In December, Guide Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dennis K. Pawley left the company, saying GM was not paying enough for its lighting to allow Guide to survive. He had replaced Guide's first independent CEO, Michael Hammes, in January 2000. By February of this year, Palladium sold the business to Vehicle Lighting Inc., a new company established by turnaround specialist B.N. Bahadur.
Dennis Hiller, a former executive with Collins & Aikman Corp., took over as Guide's new president and CEO for Vehicle Lighting, making him the supplier's third top executive in 13 months.
Guide is a huge presence in the North American auto industry. It is the biggest single supplier of both headlamps and taillamps. Its operations in Anderson; Monroe, La.; and Monterrey, Mexico, produce more than 80,000 headlamps per day and 360,000 signal lamps - including fog lights, turn signals and rear lighting.
The company still is tied closely to GM. Guide is responsible for 75 percent of the automaker's lighting in North America, while GM makes up 75 percent of all of Guide's sales. Guide is the sixth-largest injection molder in North America, according to Plastics News' ranking, with $520 million in annual molding sales and 3,000 employees.
Its operations include insert and multicolor injection molding with a variety of thermoplastics and thermosets.
Fighting for identity
But Guide still is the new kid on the block as an independent supplier, fighting decades' worth of recognition only as a slow-moving stepchild of GM and fighting to keep its presses in operation.
``When you're a former [original equipment manufacturer], you have to be a little more creative about introducing'' yourself, Mickel said. ``When we first became Guide Corp., there were credibility issues, a trust issue almost, that we have had to get past.
``People would say to us that they knew all about Guide. They knew the headlights that were on the Cadillac in 1980. We'd have to say: `We're not that company.' ''
In the process, North America's biggest lighting supplier has recognized that quantity is not everything, Mickel noted. Sometimes the company is better off chasing a high-end lighting program on a smaller-volume production car, rather than the system going onto hundreds of thousands of vehicles - where profit margins are at their smallest.
Focusing on high technology is a good strategy but one that is difficult for any supplier to pull off, according to consultant Jon Ball, an analyst with Conway MacKenzie & Dunleavy, a Birmingham, Mich.-based turnaround specialist.
Bringing new products to the market is expensive, Ball said. It requires money to come up with ideas and to make them work. Even if a company comes up with something automakers like, it takes years to get to market.
``If you look at the list of suppliers with the best returns out there right now, those are the ones with proprietary products,'' Ball said. ``It's a pretty expensive way to go, and it takes a while to earn back your investment.''
Beyond those costs, Guide must create a solid relationship with a work force that unionized as part of industry giant GM and now is part of a smaller, independent company that cannot offer the same benefits package as an automaker, Ball said.
In late June, members of United Auto Workers Local 663 in Anderson asked for permission to strike, citing a series of issues, including Guide's decision to ship some of its presses out of Indiana and into molding operations in Monroe and Monterrey.
The biggest questions for the 1,500 members of the local, though, are where is Guide heading and what is in store for the men and women on the line, said President David Petry.
``Everybody's worried about security. That's the bottom line,'' Petry said.
The union hopes the request to authorize a strike will bring the new management to the table to discuss the future of Guide and its workers.
``By nature, people assume the worst when they don't hear anything. They live with the worst-case scenario,'' Petry said. ``We're just in limbo, and it's not a comfortable feeling.''
Union members recognize that they no longer are part of GM, he said. Some members have left Guide to transfer to GM operations, a move allowed under their contract regarding the sale. Those remaining have agreed to concessions to help Guide compete.
``Those days of being GM and being a fat corporation don't exist now,'' he said. ``We're ready for Chrysler and for Ford. We're ready for new technology. Bring it on.''
Success amidst chaos
Guide officials would not comment on the firm's discussions with the union, but the company is ``committed to a harmonious agreement'' with its workers, spokesman Jeff Hutson said.
New administrators for Guide are not discussing details of their purchase or their financial position, but Mickel said the business is positioned to perform.
The shakedown it has gone through to shed itself of the GM images comes at the same time changes have rippled throughout the supplier community. No one is operating on the same territory they held just a few years ago. Component suppliers are being asked to take on greater responsibility for design and engineering.
``Turmoil in the industry makes it possible to succeed,'' Mickel said.
Lighting is a part of that shake-up and is caught between the image of a basic auto part and a highly engineered module. Even as Guide churns out basic lights, it is pushing the engineering envelope.
It has contracts to make high-intensity discharge headlights that appear on many luxury vehicles and are beginning to filter into other cars. The 2001 Cadillac Seville premieres Guide's ``world headlamp'' system, which uses minor lamp modifications to meet the lighting standards in Europe, Asia and North America.
The new Pendleton site includes $2.3 million worth of testing equipment and centralized access to everyone from computer specialists to designers and materials engineers. They can compare notes across the table, rather than driving from building to building as they once did.
Guide's computer evolution also has created proprietary programs that allow company representatives to sit down with auto designers, show them within seconds how well a particular headlight will work on any vehicle and offer alternatives on its size, shape or material.
``We used to have a book that was inches thick where we'd have to look up every dimension,'' said engineer Andy DeKeyser. ``Now we can take a laptop to Detroit, enter [the rough sketch], hit the button and it can give us everything, right there. We can run the iterations.
``We've put the book in the computer.''
Bushfield's team, meanwhile, can ship out a compact disc showing a prototype nighttime drive with the selected headlights within two days, giving automakers and headlight makers alike a view of how the lamps will perform - even when those lights exist only on paper and in computer form.
The company has evolved, Mickel said. Now it is working to prove its new capabilities to customers.
``What you see is what you get,'' said C. Dan Dobbs, senior project engineer. ``That's what we have to prove.''