DETROIT -- About 600 supplier executives who gathered here last week for a meeting with General Motors brass got some news they hadn't bargained for: Global purchasing chief Bob Socia, who has done much to repair GM's strained relations with the supply base, is being reassigned.
Socia, 58, will take over as president of GM China on Oct. 1, succeeding the retiring Kevin Wale, 57. Wale has led GM China since 2005, growing sales from 560,000 units that year to 2.5 million in 2011 to make China GM's largest market.
The news came from GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, who counts Socia as one of his direct reports, at the gathering inside GM's design dome in suburban Detroit. Several hundred more supplier executives listened to a telecast of the meeting.
"It did catch us by surprise," says Neil De Koker, president of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association. "We thought Bob was going to be there a few more years."
Since becoming purchasing chief in 2009, replacing Bo Andersson, Socia has won praise for improving communication with suppliers and providing better transparency, particularly about GM's production schedules. De Koker cites a meeting in November between suppliers and GM executives during which Socia had two dozen purchasing managers split up by component groups.
"Suppliers could line up and talk to specific engineering and purchasing teams on any specific issue on any part of the vehicle," De Koker says. "It was extremely effective."
Since Socia's arrival, GM's standing has improved every year in an annual ranking of automakers' supplier relations by Planning Perspectives Inc., a suburban Detroit research firm. In 2012, GM received its highest-ever ranking, though it still lagged perennial leaders Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co.
Last week, GM said it would name Socia's successor "in the near future."
It's the latest in a string of executive changes under CEO Dan Akerson. So far this year, Akerson has installed new heads of manufacturing, information technology, infotainment, vehicle quality and GM Europe, while also dismissing his global marketing chief, Joel Ewanick.
Socia has held several other senior positions overseas. He was named president of GM South Africa in 2004 and has had executive posts in Asia, Europe and South America.
Socia will report to Tim Lee, president of GM's international operations, which includes China.
Wale began his career at GM's Holden unit in Australia in 1975. In 1998, he was named head of GM's Asia-Pacific operations, and in 2001 became managing director of GM's Vauxhall brand in the United Kingdom and vice president of GM Europe.
"Kevin has been instrumental in strengthening our foundation in the largest vehicle market in the world," Lee said in a statement.
Jeff Klei, president of the NAFTA region at Continental Automotive, a major GM supplier, says suppliers long have had "big complaints" about GM's fluctuating production schedules.
Under Socia, GM has "engaged suppliers and made changes in their own process to enable much better visibility and stability on scheduling," Klei says.
So what happens now that Socia is moving on? Klei is optimistic that the improvements "are too deep and too well ingrained in the organization to change."
"You never know," Klei says. "But I can't imagine a scenario where they say 'Let's start beating up suppliers again.' They've learned about the importance of suppliers to the success of GM."