Ray Jensen thinks major automakers are miles in front of other industries in developing a strong minority presence in business.
That said, the road to full participation is still a long and winding one. Even the leaders are far from the end of the journey.
Jensen, Ford Motor Co.'s director of minority supplier development, has headed the automaker's efforts since 1978 to create minority supplier opportunities.
'I believe what I brought was a new way of thinking,' he says from his bright, windowed office decorated with African-American-themed artwork and scattered mementos of his 20-year career in the U.S. Air Force.
Jensen originally came to Ford in 1978 to help make cars more aerodynamically efficient. He worked as a principal engineer in aerodynamics, then shifted to Ford's advanced engineering staff. When the opportunity came to head minority supplier development, Jensen jumped at it.
'My first challenge was to raise the issue of minority supplier development into a core part of our day-to-day operations - the thread that goes into the blanket of Ford operations.'
He saw a global market emerging in which minority customers would make more and more buying decisions. Jensen also saw a new, young and credentialed group of potential minority entrepreneurs coming forward. He thought Ford could enhance its strategy by developing both sides of the minority business. In turn, minority suppliers could benefit from the auto industry and pass those benefits on in the form of jobs, business contracts and economic development.
'This is a very tough industry and a very close industry - but it's a very rewarding industry,' he says.
Jensen likes to reflect on Ford's willingness to put minority suppliers in strategic positions, ones in which the automaker counts on high-quality performance.
'We have made some fantastic inroads in developing suppliers who just happen to be minorities,' he says. 'I think we have reached a level where we are having the same problems with minority suppliers that we are having with majority suppliers. Maybe that's a mark of success,' Jensen says.
'Will we ever get to the point where a supplier to Ford who happens to be a minority will be one who stands alone and can face any obstacle, like a Budd Co. or a Magna? I would probably say no, not in the near future.
'I think it is our responsibility to always be there to help. . . . You must understand your supplier, you must develop a relationship with your supplier, and you must develop that supplier to meet your long-term goal, which is to be profitable.'