The allure of new technology prompted John Harris to give up his career with Kelsey-Hayes Co. in 1987 and go to work for an unestablished new U.S.-Japanese joint venture, Ambrake Corp. in Elizabethtown, Ky.
But after six months of studying in Japan with Ambrake's Japanese parent, Akebono Brake Co. Ltd., Harris discovered there were no magic technological bullets involved.
'I realized it wasn't anything overwhelmingly innovative,' says Harris. 'They had the same problems we had. They just dealt with them better. They knew how to involve people in solving problems.'
Eleven years later, Harris has a bigger reward for that career change. The one-time Detroit factory manager has been named the first U.S. president of Akebono Corp., the Japanese giant's North America holding company.
Harris oversees Ambrake, the 50-50 brake-making venture with General Motors' Delphi Chassis Systems in Elizabethtown, as well as a separate Akebono plant in Glasgow, Ky.; Akebono's research and development arm in Detroit; a remanufacturing plant in Munfordville, Ky.; and an aftermarket unit in Chicago.
Harris, now 48, was the compromise candidate in the beginning - neither a GM manager nor an Akebono one to keep the balance between the partners. The parents are apparently happy with the results. Last year, Ambrake did more than $350 million in disc and drum brakes and friction materials - up from $250 million in 1996. Employment is up to 950 people. For the past five years, the operation has kept its defect rate to five parts per million, making it an industry benchmark.
Harris' story is a testament to what a startup joint venture between two global competitors can do.
Individually, the pair might have bumped heads and struck out in luring new markets.
But together, their customer list now includes Saturn, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Isuzu and New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., not to mention General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.