Dennis E. Hiller is out to give a new sheen to Guide Corp.
In his 15 months as president and chief executive officer of North America's largest automotive lighting supplier, Hiller and his management team invested $34.5 million in new equipment, wooed workers to the continuous-improvement mantra of lean manufacturing and labored to attract attention beyond General Motors Corp., its largest customer.
It is a multifaceted approach aiming to turn around the one-time GM division.
``We've got to build the image of our company in the marketplace, and image is not a billboard coming out of [Detroit Metropolitan Airport],'' Hiller said during a March 25 interview.
``What we're trying to do is create a way of life, and it takes time. You don't change it in the three years that Guide has existed. You don't change it in the months that I've been there. It's cultural.''
They are the changes, though, the company must make if it is to meet its goals for the coming decade: expanding through an expected consolidation in its field - including potential acquisitions - and adding to its customer base.
Hiller joined Guide in February 2001 when ownership of the Pendleton, Ind.-based private company passed to turnaround specialist B.N. Bahadur's Vehicle Lighting Inc. from Palladium Equity Partners LLC.
The company now is installing new equipment at Anderson, Ind.; Monroe, La.; and Monterrey, Mexico, to improve the metallic coating applied to the rear of a headlamp, which provides a reflective surface for the bulb. It has formed a 50-member team to oversee lean-manufacturing and continuous-improvement initiatives.
Its three plants, with 300 injection molding presses, have improved quality performance by 48 percent during the past year, according to its customers' own numbers, Hiller said.
Each one of those steps can improve morale, overall performance and sales outside GM, Hiller said, with Dan Dobbins, executive vice president of sales and marketing, overseeing business contacts from a revamped office in suburban Detroit.
Guide is a giant, listing more than $400 million in sales last year, but it is a giant reliant on one customer - former parent GM.
General Motors controls less than a third of the North American auto market, so although Guide supplies 75 percent of GM's lights, there is far more growth potential outside the world's biggest automaker.
``We've got to attack the 72 percent of the market that we don't have today,'' Hiller said.
It has made a start in that direction, he said, with other manufacturers checking out Guide's capabilities. He expects the company to have contracts in hand soon. He will mark true success once it can list significant business with at least six carmakers.
Even as Dobbins introduces a revamped Guide to Detroit's decision makers, Hiller is convincing Guide's 3,000 employees - half of whom originally worked for GM - to expand their view to the demands of the entire industry, not just one automaker. Failure to perform to increasing standards for quality, design and delivery spells failure to any business.
``It'd be a terrible mistake for any supplier to think that they have all the cards, that no one can afford for them to fail,'' he said. ``That's surely not where we are. Where we are, is telling everybody that we have to earn their business every day, because if we don't, then we'll wake up one day and we're going to be just a fraction of what we once were.''
Jewel in the making
Guide's new equipment - made possible by 200 new product launches for 2003 and 2004 model vehicles - will expand its ability to produce the clear-lens headlamps automakers prefer, and help move lighting away from its status as a mere commodity on the car.
``There is a whole styling, aesthetic side of the business, where we're almost supplying a piece of jewelry,'' Hiller said. ``Lighting five, six, seven, 10 years ago was providing a function. Today ... it is also very much an appearance element on that vehicle.''
For now, every investment dollar will focus on North America, although the company may seek alliances with European or Asian auto suppliers to support contacts with international automakers now producing in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
``You've got to be realistic,'' Hiller said. ``We've got to earn additional business in North America before we tear off for Europe or anyplace else in the world.''
The company also is pursuing the potential of joining forces with Acsys Technologies Inc., a fascia business created last year when Bahadur bought majority control of the former Peregrine Oshawa Inc. of Oshawa, Ontario. Hiller also serves as president and CEO of Acsys, although there is no direct relationship between the companies beyond his involvement, he said.
Like Guide, Acsys has brought in new equipment to improve production capabilities, with the Southfield-based company stating its $20 million investment already has boosted quality and productivity.
The two businesses are looking at the advantages of offering a joint lighting and bumper fascia program, however. Any development in that area will depend on customer reaction, Hiller said.
``We have to make sure we are in a position to support the needs of the marketplace,'' he said. ``If our ability to provide some kind of a front system, if that is a point of differentiation, if that means that we can separate ourselves from competitors, then that will help us win.''