Five years ago, Dearborn, Mich.-based auto supplier Plastech Engineered Products Inc. was a growing injection molder, but one of many firms with sales between $200 million and $300 million filling the industry landscape. It seemed to have little to set it apart beyond its status as a minority supplier that also was led by a woman - Vietnam-born Julie Nguyen Brown.
Today the firm tops $1 billion in sales. It has added capacity and technology through the purchase of LDM Technologies Inc. in 2004 and now stands as one of the few strong plastic part suppliers operating in the auto industry.
Last year, Brown - who tends to shun the spotlight - also gave the company a new public face: Plastech hired Ford Motor Co.'s North American product chief Phil Martens as president and chief operating officer, along with Matt DeMars, who had been Ford's vice president of North American vehicle operations.
During an interview March 7 at the Plastics News Executive Forum in Tampa, Martens talked about the capabilities Plastech has developed and how it is in a unique place for long-term market success.
Q: A lot of people were surprised that you would leave Ford for what is seen as a shoot-and-ship molder. What have you found working for Plastech?
Martens: To be in the supply industry ... you have to have a good team, and Plastech and its management team is one of the best I've ever worked with. That's one of the reasons I came to this company. In this environment, it's not about who you are, but how you work as a team. The pace of change has certainly picked up. You have to be able to respond almost instantly. With the emergence of new Chapter 11s and with the distressed-supplier situations, you're really in front of a landscape that's consolidating and changing, and you're not sure where it's going to go. You really have to be able to react quickly.
Q: So are people on the outside not really seeing what Plastech has to offer?
Martens: I've got to give a lot of credit to Julie Brown. She has built a fully capable, powerhouse Tier 1 supplier that is very viable financially, that has all of the skills necessary to do everything from - literally - full instrument panels to shoot-and-ship parts. Everything that's plastic on the car, we can do. I think we are, from that perspective, uniquely positioned. We do all of the interior bits and pieces; we can do very complicated consoles which require extensive engineering and testing - which we do in-house. We have our own industrial design studio in which we do quite a bit of modeling, and quite a bit of design work from a proposal perspective. A real growing core competency we have is program management. People don't realize we have some real technology in our plants.
Q: So what is it that has set Plastech apart from its competitors?
Martens: It is one of the few companies I've ever seen that has an ability to reinvent itself on a continual basis. When you see some of the work that we've got in place right now - we have brand-new facilities going up in Michigan: in Lansing to work with GM, a significant expansion in Romulus, a brand-new facility we're launching right now in Frenchtown - these are state-of-the-art facilities. These are facilities with proper process flow, with proper technology, with full commonality with machines and with presses. When you look at them, they really represent what we think the industry wants a state-of-the-art manufacturer to be.
At the same time ... we continually evaluate the use of our older facilities. It's a constant renewal going on in the company. That's one of the advantages to being private, that we can make the adjustments, and we do. The other advantage is that we can move very quickly. It's a culture that's fast - compared to my former life, extremely fast - it's very flexible and it's filled with passionate people. It's really a dynamic place.
Q: What did the addition of LDM bring into that structure?
Martens: LDM actually made Plastech a complete Tier 1 supplier with all of the full-service capabilities that one would want. When I walk through our design studios - our [computer-aided-design/engineering] capabilities - it's cutting edge. When I look at our engineering test facilities and the approach we're taking in program management, a lot of that existed in Plastech, but LDM was known for it and that has brought significant capability. We also have, I think, a very strong control system for cost and cost management. ... That's what's made Plastech very viable. It's very lean - there has been a very, very direct orientation around quality and cost.
Q: So what do you and Matt add to the equation at Plastech?
Martens: You have to look at the way [Brown] built the company, and it's impressive. In 2004, she purchased LDM, a huge step forward. In 2005, she recognized that to grow, she needed to bring in some more traditional management.
Q: So what do you say to the outsiders who still are skeptical about Plastech?
Martens: You can't run a company the size of Plastech profitably without having good management and good control. You can't be opportunistic without having what I would call intelligent leadership. ... Nearly everyone else in that area of the marketplace is either exiting or stepping aside. We certainly have the desire to keep advancing.
Just look at the top five [auto plastics suppliers] and Plastech is the only one that's not in Chapter 11 or up for sale. ... You have to take apart what you might hear and step back and say Plastech as a company does things exceptionally well, all things considered. It doesn't happen just because of one person. When you get in and look at the teamwork in that place, when you look at the performance orientation and the fast, flexible nature of the culture, it's all there, and that's what it takes.