Tom Evans has sold his vision to Wall Street.
He's sold it to bankers, to investors and analysts.
He's signed on executives from four different firms who have agreed to lead a wholly revamped Collins & Aikman Corp. into a new automotive supply strategy with the addition of Textron Automotive Co. Inc.'s trim division - an acquisition completed Dec. 20 that doubled the firm's size.
But can he sell it to Daren Rupert and Lucy Blankenship, die changers whose plant has gone from ownership under Charles Becker to Johnson Controls Inc., back to Becker, then to C&A and who now are led by management from the former Textron group?
Will Lucille Rocha, who began working at Textron's trim plant in Port Huron, Mich., even before the official launch of production - and saw it named as one of North America's top 10 plants last year - buy into Evans' plans?
For Evans and the rest of management at Collins & Aikman, Rupert, Blankenship, Rocha and their co-workers are at the center of a massive overhaul of C&A as it shakes off its former status as an auto-supply also-ran into a leader.
It is a game that Evans - who has adopted a Super Bowl scoring strategy to reflect the stakes - knows he cannot afford to lose.
``It's all-important,'' he said during a videoconference to employees of the ``new'' C&A just after the company completed its Textron Automotive purchase. ``It's all-important.''
And for a company that spent more than a year preparing for its acquisition binge, and spent almost another full year making purchase after purchase, crunch time has just begun.
``The easiest part is getting excited about the acquisition and what it theoretically can mean and getting it financed,'' Evans said in a March 26 interview at Collins & Aikman's new global headquarters in Troy, Mich.
``There's a lot of work there but, quite frankly, that's the easier part. The harder part is making sure you can execute everything and deliver and keep everything marching and coordinated with no surprises. That's the skill.''
Successful integrations are the exception rather than the rule. A handful of studies during the past 10 years list failure rates of 50-77 percent, depending on the measurements used, said Don Robinson, a founder of Fourth Floor Consulting Inc. of Chicago and co-author of After the Merger.
The risk can be small for a large firm buying a smaller operation, but the purchase of a business of similar size - a ``merger of equals'' - is extremely risky, he said.
Bankruptcy court file rooms are filled with the paperwork of companies that made one mistake or another as part of their growth strategy: Cambridge Industries Inc., Key Plastics LLC, Breed Technologies Inc. and Federal Mogul Corp. making up just a few of those operating in automotive plastics.
Collins & Aikman is looking to tip the scale to the positive side. Its purchase and the ongoing integration of Textron's trim unit, typically referred to as TAC-Trim, is not the result of a lucky deal popping up at an opportune moment, Evans stressed. It did not end up in C&A's hands because of the dearth of other potential buyers on the market.
This emerging company, with the former Textron management leading the plastics business, was planned very carefully beginning more than two years ago.
At the start of 1999, Collins & Aikman had a history in auto supply dating back to Henry Ford's Model T, but little recognition in Detroit. Its global headquarters was in North Carolina, more closely aligned with the textile industry. Despite its ownership of a plastics unit, it had limited exposure on that side of the supply industry.
C&A was not even considered a serious contender when United Technologies Corp. put its automotive unit on the block in January 1999, but behind the scenes, something was happening. Blackstone Capital Partners LP, part of the majority ownership at C&A, bid for United Technologies Automotive, although it lost out to Lear Corp.
About the same time, Evans was ending a tour at Tenneco Automotive Inc. and headed to C&A, convinced that its mixture of products - textile, carpets, convertible tops and plastics - had real promise in the expanding field of acoustics.
``Why I came is because I saw some puzzle pieces lying on the table that I thought could be uniquely combined,'' he said. ``I saw a real technology edge in acoustics and I saw its position in interior styling.''
But to succeed, Collins & Aikman had to change.
The new leadership team began to revamp the century-old business.
``I knew exactly what I wanted to build and I knew exactly what building blocks were missing,'' he said.
There were six companies he targeted for acquisition, with plastics at the core. Collins & Aikman could not control the sound of an auto interior without controlling more of the material that made up that interior.
``It was either Textron or UTA, and once Lear had UTA, by process of elimination it became Textron,'' he said.
But the plan could not move forward until C&A had a new financial partner. Blackstone and Wasserstein Perella Partners LP, who together had majority ownership and control, were not anxious to front further investments in the firm. So throughout 2000, Collins & Aikman stayed out of the acquisition fray, instead focusing on paying off debts and getting a new player on board.
Three miles down Interstate 75 from C&A's new headquarters, Textron Automotive was in the midst of its own struggles. The trim unit, which made up two-thirds of its business, was caught under a corporate umbrella.
It had a range of products customers wanted, it had technology, thanks to its purchase of a closed-loop injection molding control system it would label IntelliMold, which would improve production.
It had scale, as the largest injection molder in North America, and a top producer of interior systems both in North America and Europe. It had expanded into South America.
But it also had a corporate parent unwilling to make the major investments needed in a rapidly changing auto industry.
Textron Inc., based in Providence, R.I., had name recognition for other holdings in its portfolio: Cessna Aircraft, Bell Helicopter, E-Z-Go golf carts. Textron Automotive rang no bells, and Wall Street analysts generally are dismissive of a manufacturer in an old-line industry.
``We suffered a little bit, being part of a large corporation,'' said Jerry Mosingo, who headed up manufacturing for TAC-Trim and now is C&A vice president of global manufacturing. ``When Textron looked at their corporate portfolio, even though we did very well and we held up our end very well, they didn't see automotive as a value.''
The corporate hierarchy added another complication, said Jeff Rose, who led its research efforts and now is senior vice president of global product and technology development for C&A.
``When we were Textron, it was really a cumbersome management system,'' he said. ``They have all these initiatives about being `light speed,' but the reality was, if you needed capital equipment approval, you had to know six weeks in advance. The board only met certain days and you had to have the information ready for them in advance.
``Sometimes you simply don't know 21/2 weeks in advance or four weeks in advance, because an opportunity just comes up.''
Then there was the simple fact that the auto industry did not take Textron seriously, despite its products, its technology and its global reach. Multi-industry conglomerates have spent the past half-decade pulling out of the auto industry. The expectation around Detroit was that Textron Inc. had no long-term plans for the business.
``They were getting capital-starved from their corporate parent,'' said Richard Hilgert, a Detroit-based analyst who followed Textron and Collins & Aikman for Fahnestock & Co. ``In that type of a situation, one of two types of scenarios would play out. [TAC-Trim] would either wither up and die in this industry or get extremely lean to be able to afford the capital investment.''
The company got lean - impressively lean, Hilgert said - to continue bringing new products to the market.
``To a degree, Textron was one of the worst sales and marketing companies ever,'' Rose said. ``We were good in spite of that.''
But management knew it could not last.
``Even though the people in the auto industry looked at us as the cream of the crop, we were at a very poor size for the automotive sector,'' Mosingo said. ``We either had to grow the automotive or sell it. We either needed to get bigger by buying somebody, or be sold.''
Collins & Aikman started 2001 with a new financial partner on board.
Heartland Industrial Partners LP was headed by David Stockman, a self-confessed ``failed government accountant'' whose career had taken him from a stint in Congress, representing southwestern Michigan, to a tour of duty in the White House as budget leader under President Ronald Reagan.
He already was familiar with Collins & Aikman, having served as a senior managing director with fiscal backer Blackstone Group before launching Heartland in 2000, intending it as an investment group focused on manufacturing in mid-America.
In January 2001, C&A and Heartland announced their partnership. Heartland held a 60 percent stake in the publicly traded firm.
To succeed, Stockman said, would take ``compelling supplier strategies and doing things differently.''
``If you don't have a differentiated business model going forward, you're not needed.''
>From the relationship's launch, Evans promised a complete overhaul. Collins & Aikman, he said, would pay down debt but also look to acquire - in plastics, in Europe and in automotive fabric.
To jump-start the excitement he had two aces in his hand. Even as C&A had signed on with Heartland, Evans had undergone lengthy negotiations with Chuck Becker, the leader of Becker Plastics LLC, to buy his company and bring Becker on board with the C&A management group. Likewise, he was wooing the auto fabric group of Joan Fabrics Corp.
Just weeks after completing Heartland's new stake in C&A, the company could announce its intentions to acquire Becker and the auto division of Joan.
``Conceptually, these guys were subscribers to what we were doing and the strategy we had. We had been talking since '99, so when Heartland's money hit the deck, we could move. We weren't starting from scratch once Heartland came on.
``Those announcements jump-started the excitement. You saw the stock price move, you saw the bonds go up, you saw the industry take notice. Our employees got excited.
``We were finally throwing off the shackles of stagnation, and growing.''
The first two parts of Evans' vision of a revitalized Collins & Aikman were in place - but Textron Inc. was about to throw the firm a curve ball.
During the corporation's conference call with analysts marking the end of the first quarter of 2001, Chief Executive Officer Lewis Campbell said the company intended to reduce its reliance on the auto industry. TAC-Trim was now on the table.
``That caught us by surprise,'' Evans said. ``That came about a year ahead of when we thought it would happen.''
As Textron geared up to sell the bulk of its auto business through TAC-Trim - leaving only the fuel-tank operations of Kautex and some sales under its Textron Fastening Systems division - Mosingo had a front-row view.
Mosingo was part of the team assembled to sell the company, by rolling out details of its processes, technology and production. But with every meeting, he also was weighing what the ownership change would mean for his team.
``It is a very interesting perspective,'' he said. ``You're there, making a presentation to a potential boss, for lack of a better word, and at the same time saying to yourself, `Well, is this the right guy for me or not? Is it the right fit?''
Evans knew he had to sell the TAC-Trim management team on Collins & Aikman if he was to get the entire company he wanted - both processes and people.
``Most companies get into trouble by buying low-ranked companies and thinking they're going to fix it,'' he said. ``They think they're going to build it into an A situation, but you won't, and that's where you can screw up.
``If you buy a two-legged dog, you can do anything you want, but you're never going to grow the other two legs. I don't care how hard you try.''
The players were setting the tone to determine exactly how smoothly - or how rough - any purchase would go, even one planned well in advance. The discussions that take place during due diligence, Robinson said, will carry through for years.
``If there is an extended period of getting to know each other, then the honeymoon can go a lot smoother and the marriage goes a lot smoother,'' he said.
So the negotiations turned into a corporate courtship dance, with C&A demanding that it work with manufacturing managers during due diligence, rather than with finance consultants. Plant managers were available for plant visits. Evans and the Heartland team had free rein to talk to anyone on the shop floor.
``It was, in my own selfish way, a way to be able to test them before I owned anything,'' he said. ``I had six months of working with these guys like they worked for me before they actually worked for me. That was a great luxury.
``I was able to put these guys under pressure, put them in the game, challenge them, test them, see if the chemistry was right, see if the energy was right, see if the technical abilities were right before I signed a contract to employ them.''
And as it became clear that it was just a matter of time until Collins & Aikman took over TAC-Trim, the C&A group teamed up executives from both companies to see how well they would work together, how their goals could mesh. That was key for a new company that would have top people from the C&A side reporting to a former Textron worker and vice versa.
The technology gurus who would need to work together to marry C&A's expertise in acoustics management and Textron's interior systems and plastic skin technology - Graham Tompson from Collins & Aikman and Rose of Textron - traveled to Europe to look at C&A operations there.
``We had to get together to know each other, and there's nothing like traveling through the dark of night in Sweden to get to know somebody,'' Rose said.
``And sitting in a poor hotel at 12 o'clock at night, begging someone for some dinner,'' Tompson added.
``It builds the relationship,'' Rose said.
The closer the teams became, the more aware they were of each other's strengths and the potential for a combined operation.