DETROIT - Even though Raul Saldivar and most of his 175 co-workers at Bridgewater Interiors LLC had no auto experience a few months ago, his employer expects him to assemble the Cadillac DeVille's seat - one of the industry's most complex - more than 32 times an hour.
The seats can come with or without heating and lumbar massage systems. They have headrest and seat-belt options, plus memory-control bottoms that mold to the person's shape. They feature two cloth colors and five leather colors.
So Saldivar is practicing. For the past six months, he has been building seats and tearing them apart. Production engineers hover nearby, making sure that rollers designed to carry away a completed seat every 90 to 100 seconds are moving smoothly.
'I didn't know anything about assembly when I got here,' said Saldivar, a 30-year-old Detroiter whose job is to repair defective seats. 'I was a carpenter. I assembled houses, so this is a whole different thing. It takes a lot of practice.'
A lot of money is betting that practice makes perfect. Come July 26, Bridgewater must begin just-in-time production of front and rear seats that are shipped in sequence to General Motors' assembly plant in Hamtramck, Mich.
BIG MINORITY CONTRACT
On the line is a five-year, $900 million contract with GM, one of the largest minority contracts in automotive history. Bridgewater is a symbol of the auto industry's promises to support minority-owned suppliers. Its recent grand opening was marked by a marching band, caterers and a speech by Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer.
The best way for Bridgewater to fill high expectations is simply to stay in business, a local economist said.
'If it satisfies the customer, then it will provide jobs and do all those other things,' said David Littmann, chief economist at Comerica Bank. 'All of the verbiage about what it means is less important than the product. They have to be economically feasible. That social stuff comes second.'
Bridgewater Interiors created 230 new jobs, 98 percent of them filled by Detroiters and many of them younger workers. Most jobs start at $11 an hour plus benefits.
GM is backing Bridgewater because it helps fulfill the auto industry's promise to the White House to increase purchases from minority businesses by $2 billion annually.
If Bridgewater succeeds, annual sales quickly could top $1 billion as other automakers give it new contracts. Bridgewater is a joint venture between Johnson Controls Inc. and minority entrepreneurs Ron Hall and Bill Pickard. It is a balancing act, admit its owners, supporters and auto analysts.
`WE CAN DO IT'
'Bridgewater is expected to be competitive,' said J. David Allen, GM's director of minority supplier development. 'They are out there courting more business, and we want them to get more business. But for them to get it, they have to be equal to any of their competitors. They get no special treatment.'
Bridgewater, which is in Detroit just a few blocks from the Ambassador Bridge to Canada, stands in stark contrast to much of its neighborhood. Its sparkling 125,000-square-foot building in a federal empowerment zone has fresh sod, and its wood chips and green shrubs are watered by a sprinkler system.
Next door, waist-high dandelions have cracked the concrete in front of an abandoned, paint-chipped building.
Bridgewater CEO Hall says his company is expected to be a socially responsible business that employs minorities, as well as a defect-free and efficient auto parts supplier.
'We can do it,' Hall said. 'I don't buy the fact they are mutually exclusive. Inherent in the thought that we can't do it is that if you have a minority work force, you have to make concessions to quality. Well, we are going to blow that stereotype out of the water.'
Hall came to Bridgewater last October after six years with the Michigan Minority Business Development Council. His main partner, Pickard, is chairman of Regal Plastics Co., a Roseville, Mich., automotive supplier. They have a business group called Epsilon LLC, which owns 51 percent of Bridgewater.
The GM contract opened up after a previous Johnson Controls joint venture with Chivas Products Ltd. went awry. Chivas, which was based in Sterling Heights, Mich., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1997.
Hall is confident about Bridgewater's future. Johnson Controls brought in the production-line technology to 'make sure the employees get the job done,' he said. Several Johnson Controls managers are on loan to help.
'Even though these seats are complicated, maybe the most sophisticated we make, we have a way of using automation to make it easier to learn,' said George Miccleton, a GM business unit launch manager for Johnson Controls who will be at Bridgewater through October.
Bridgewater also is well-prepared. Its truck drivers, for example, have been given eight routes from Bridgewater to GM's Hamtramck plant to make sure seats arrive on time.
'Our contract calls for us to get seats there within four hours from when we get the order. We'll get them there in two and a half hours,' Hall said. He is adding a 50,000-square-foot expansion this summer, less than a year after the Bridgewater building was completed. Hall said he and Johnson Controls are negotiating with GM, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler for more business.
GM's Allen said his company will encourage other automakers such as Ford to do business with Bridgewater. But before Hall and others can look ahead, workers such as Saldivar must master their jobs.
The company aims to ship more than 600 seat systems daily in a specific order with no defects.
'I think we'll be ready,' said Saldivar, staying late to work after most others have left. 'It might be a rough start, but we'll get it right pretty fast.'