On Good Friday after work, George Mayes' beeper went off as he drove to spend Easter weekend with his mother-in-law in Ohio.
At a gas station where he'd stopped to use the phone, he heard the news: A little gasket factory near Buffalo, N.Y., was on fire.
Mayes rushed back to the car, apologized to his wife and turned the car around to head back to the office.
As the plant manager for Delphi Automotive Systems Corp.'s radiator plant in Lockport, N.Y., Mayes knew that the likely supply-line interruption was going to be a royal pain in the neck.
But what he didn't know yet - what no one would fully understand for days - was that the gasket factory fire in Albion, N.Y., came perilously close to shutting down more than one-third of North America's auto industry.
Only now - several months after the incident - are industry executives openly discussing the near-disaster.
How the industry averted that crisis is a tale of sleepless nights, quick action, out-of-the-box thinking and some jaw-dropping engineering accomplishments.
This is the day-by-day story of a catastrophe that never happened.
Friday, April 2:
Avon Automotive North America is a gasket producer with headquarters in Cadillac, Mich. It has plants in Albion and Manton, Mich., and in Mexico.
The rubber seals that flow from Albion allow one customer - Delphi's Harrison Thermal Systems - to build radiators. In turn, Delphi's two key customers, General Motors and Toyota, install those radiators in 500,000 vehicles a month, or more than a third of all North American production.
Avon built its Albion seal-making operations in an old 80,000-square-foot building that had been renovated four years ago. Half the building was a modern warehouse, half of it an old factory.
On April 2, just as the night shift reported to work, sparks from the presses ignited the wooden roof. In hours, the building was in ashes. The more modern warehouse was the only part of the factory left standing.
Watching the 6 o'clock news from Buffalo that night after work, Delphi supply-chain manager Susan Campbell saw footage of the factory in flames. Campbell knew Avon was a Delphi supplier. She fished out Mayes' beeper number and phoned him in his car with the news.
Late that night, as the factory still smoldered, Avon plant manager Dean Depew led a handful of his managers into the ashes with flashlights. The falling, burning wooden roof had crumpled and split the scorched presses and batted them around the factory. Depew remembers the recurring words of those who searched in the dark: 'Unsalvageable ... totally unsalvageable.'
Saturday, April 3:
Mayes had expected to spend Saturday morning sleeping late at his mother-in-law's. Instead, he found himself at 7 a.m. sitting at his desk in the office, gathering information from Delphi managers and officials at Avon.
The first order of business was to assess the physical damage to the factory: Exactly what was destroyed and what was still standing?
Mayes also needed to know how much inventory was in the pipeline and where it was. Delphi's employees spent the day compiling a detailed account of its own inventory.
They figured out how many gaskets were in Delphi's possession, how many were in trucks and how many, if any, were salvageable from the fire.
One thing was immediately clear to anyone who looked at the factory's remains: There appeared to be nothing left. Either Avon would rebuild from scratch - a job that could take as long as a year, if it could be done at all - or it would simply cut its losses and leave town.
But waiting a year wasn't an option. Working into Saturday night, local government officials already were issuing construction and electrical permits to start the rebuilding. Local building contractors already were getting phone calls that would change their Easter morning plans.
Sunday, April 4:
As the estimates came together, it looked as if there was enough inventory in the pipeline to keep industry assembly lines moving for six to seven days.
At Avon headquarters in Cadillac, management hurriedly drew up a plan to transfer all possible seal production to alternative sites.
That meant moving some of the New York production into Avon's Michigan plant and some into its Mexican plant. Even then, the shuffle would be a trick.
Albion had been using 27 big steam presses to supply Delphi and all of its customers. Avon's Manton, Mich., factory had seven presses it could switch over to supply GM. Mexico had just one.
The two plants would have to move to a 24-hour, three-shift-a-day, seven-day-a-week schedule. Even then, it would be a stretch to reach the pre-fire production volume.
Avon management began scouring the United States for additional production sites. Company executives swallowed hard and telephoned their gasket-making competitors. Avon proposed handing over GM's business on the condition that once its own production was back on stream, the competitors would surrender the business back to Avon. One of the competitors agreed to the proposal, one declined.
Then Avon tracked down two nonautomotive manufacturers in New York and Pennsylvania that produced similar rubber-molded products. Each agreed to help Avon feed its enormous customer. The measures would help Avon temporarily cover part of Delphi's needs, and it would extend Delphi's inventory estimates. But the ultimate solution was to get Albion back into operation.
Meanwhile, Depew's own team had moved into emergency action. Easter morning found Depew and nearly 60 others rummaging through the ashes, preparing to resurrect the little gasket plant. The task appeared impossible. Erecting a new building was the easy part. Recreating the tooling and processes was something else.
Monday, April 5:
In morning telephone meetings, Avon executives assured Delphi's Lockport managers that they could have production up and running at the alternative plants within one week. That would mean Delphi's supply line would be virtually unbroken.
Mayes breathed a cautious sign of relief.
But Avon's optimistic scenario had huge obstacles, and those obstacles would take another 48 hours to reveal themselves fully.
Depew had a nightmare on his hands. The seals he had been supplying to the industry were produced on 50,000-pound, 10-by-20-foot steam-powered presses that were 25 years old. The high-pressure steam process enabled the rubber components to cure faster, so Avon could run its lines faster and less expensively. That allowed Avon to supply a high-volume, low-cost customer such as GM and still make money.
But the presses were proprietary designs, having evolved over the years with tooling enhancements and design changes. Avon had bought them all used. None of them had come with documentation. Their manufacturer, Lewis Welding Corp., had gone out of business in 1975.
The big pipes that supplied the steam were also gone. The technical know-how behind the machines was gone. In short, GM's North American vehicle assembly now required radiator seals produced on a proprietary steam-run process that had just vanished. Although some portions of the frames remained, the task was virtually to rebuild the presses from scratch.
To make matters even worse, the blueprints for the presses were gone. And nowhere to be found was anyone who recalled the creation of the presses 25 years ago.
As Depew stood marveling at the enormity of the situation, his primary customer was taking comfort in the thought that Avon had everything under control.
Tuesday, April 6:
The Queen Mother
This was Depew's task: Avon would attempt to reconstruct from memory one single press. They referred to it as 'the Queen Mother.' A team of 150 Avon engineers and subcontractors would rebuild the factory inside the undamaged warehouse. Once the Queen Mother was built, the team would throw itself into building two dozen identical machines.
By Tuesday, Depew and his team had been on the job since Saturday morning with little sleep. Engineers rested on the warehouse floor whenever possible, sleeping on cots nearby to stay close to the activity. The team combed every machine shop in the area, searching for stray pieces that might replicate some part of the Lewis presses.
Avon chartered flight service between Albion and Cadillac, shuttling people from one office to the other. Two dozen people flew in from Michigan to help. The company put construction trailers next to the building to serve as administrative and engineering offices. A local caterer delivered food throughout the day to keep the work going.
Lee Richards, Avon's managing director for North America, had arrived in Albion to direct the rescue effort. As an afterthought before leaving Michigan, he had stuck a few extra shirts into his luggage, just in case it turned out to be a longer visit than expected.
Wednesday, April 7:
Back at Lockport, George Mayes was getting worried. How could Avon get back up by Monday? The supplier's assurance was all he had to go on.
'That first week, we weren't in crisis-management mode at all,' Mayes recalls. 'But I was getting increasingly leery by the day.'
So was Toyota. Just to be on the safe side, Toyota sent Addon Wagner, one of its chief American troubleshooters, up from Lexington, Ky., to Avon's Michigan plant to see the progress with his own eyes.
Wagner is Toyota's assistant manager of parts control and conveyance. But that title fails to reflect what Wagner really does: He constantly travels the Toyota supply chain, helping to solve quality glitches and head off production disruptions.
Wagner sensed the same thing Mayes did - that Avon was going to have trouble meeting its one-week schedule. He called Mayes and offered to involve Toyota in the effort.
'Our policy,' Wagner said, 'is that we're not going to get involved in a sub-supplier unless we're invited to do so.'
Mayes thanked him but declined.
Thursday, April 8:
As the weekend approached, it was becoming clear to Avon that the Queen Mother was a problem. Late Thursday night, with no report of progress, Mayes called Wagner back. He found himself doing something an industrial manager would have cringed at a decade ago: He asked his customer for help. He asked the Toyota manager to fly out to New York as soon as possible. They would survey the Albion plant at first hand.
This was nothing new to Wagner. In the strange ways of Japanese industry, Toyota expects its suppliers to ask for help when it is needed. It is a business paradigm that has slowly taken root among American manufacturers.
But Wagner did pause at one issue. Avon is a union shop; Toyota is not. Avon's contractors would, no doubt, be unionized. Wagner was not. How would the overworked people in Albion react to a manager from a nonunion shop walking in and giving orders?
Before catching the plane to Buffalo, Wagner ran out to a nearby Wal-Mart. He bought a bag full of work shirts to wear at Avon, to replace the Toyota-logo-emblazoned uniforms he normally wore.
Friday, April 9:
Avon's executives remained confident. Delphi's top management wanted to know what exactly was going on with the gasket maker. On Friday, Mayes connected his senior executives to the daily Avon teleconference.
'As we sat there on the phone, they told my CEO that they would have seven presses running by Monday morning,' Mayes says.
Saturday, April 10:
Wagner and Mayes wanted to see for themselves. Early Saturday morning, they made the 30-minute drive to Albion. Their jaws dropped as they walked into the Avon factory. A human beehive was at work, and many workers appeared physically exhausted. Wagner looked up to the ceiling to see one worker throwing caution to the wind, standing with one foot on a shaky lift and another on the frame of a press, in danger of falling.
'You guys are never going to be in production again,' the people working there heard Mayes say. In a glance, Mayes realized that without some sort of extraordinary effort, 'General Motors was going to totally shut down.'
Depew and some of his colleagues had not slept in a day. They had succeeded in reconstructing the Queen Mother but were now bogged down in her electrical controls. Nothing seemed to work, and the crew was getting too tired to think of solutions.
'If anything,' says Depew, 'we were starting to lose ground.'
He looked up as the Delphi manager approached him, hand extended.
'You don't know me,' Mayes told Depew. 'My name's George Mayes. I'm from Delphi. We're going to help you rebuild your plant.'
Mayes immediately began calling for reinforcements. He put emergency calls into Delphi Automotive, asking for all available resources from the $26-billion-a-year corporation. Two hours later, he had commitments for new people and material. Mayes ordered Delphi's storehouse of tools and materials opened to Avon. About 18,000 feet of Delphi iron for construction purposes, worth about $200,000, was trucked over to help in the reconstruction.
Wagner asked for an organizational meeting. He voiced concerns over safety issues and people who desperately needed rest. It seemed to him that, despite the army of people on the scene, there was not enough organization to what they were doing.
'We had a potential meltdown situation,' he recalls.
A meeting of Avon, Delphi, Toyota and the subcontractors formed a new plan. There would be strictly enforced 12-hour work shifts. There would be more communications up and down the supply chain. Daily team meetings would be held at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. to update everyone on problems and progress. And all of the resources GM and Toyota could muster would be put at Avon's disposal to get the Queen Mother working. Finally, everyone agreed that Depew would have to go home and sleep.
Sunday, April 11:
At Mayes' request, engineers from other Delphi divisions began arriving. Delphi Chassis and Delphi Packard sent experts to help Avon put its factory processes back together. Electrical specialists from Delphi Electronics helped recreate the controls that ran the presses. Delphi also brought in engineers from Allen Bradley, one of the world's leading suppliers of electrical controls.
The team soon encountered a major headache: The Queen Mother required software from another lifetime. The press required programming in an antiquated 'ladder logic' that, in Mayes' words, 'was older than most of my engineers.' It was a programming system that no one standing there at the scene knew.
To no avail, the group had made an effort to track down the creators of the machinery. The closest they came was finding the son of a man who had worked extensively on the presses. It was a ridiculous long shot, but the team chartered a plane and flew the son into Albion to see what he knew. It was a dead end.
Monday, April 12:
Wagner found two men back at Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Georgetown, Ky., who were familiar with the dead programming logic. Toyota flew the men to the scene to assist.
But even as the project seemed to inch toward one solution, another problem materialized.
Avon's substitute presses in Mexico were not performing correctly. They needed more work. That meant the gasket inventories would shrink faster than forecasted. It meant that the Albion plant was under even more pressure to get back up and running.
Delphi set up a nationwide inventory command center that monitored the supply of Avon's gaskets as they dwindled. Engine plants reported daily on the number of gaskets they used and how many they had left.
To get the Queen Mother performing correctly, the Albion crisis team reverted to the secret weapon of American industry: competition. Two teams were organized, both including representatives from Delphi, Avon, Allen Bradley, Toyota, and various subcontractors. Each team was instructed to find the operating solution first. Both teams hunkered down for the competition.
Tuesday, April 13:
On Tuesday, the two teams announced that they had cheated -they had gotten together and swapped notes. They now believed they had debugged the software.
A crowd gathered around the Queen Mother to see whether it would heed the programming commands.
'It was real quiet,' Depew recalls. 'We were all just standing there waiting to see if any gaskets would come out. Usually, the first ones through don't look like gaskets. Suddenly, the press started up, and gaskets were coming through. The first ones even looked good.'
Despite the long-awaited success, no one wasted time celebrating. About 250 people were now on the scene, crammed into the shop. The next job was to get a second press running, and then a third, and then two dozen more just like them.
Wednesday, April 14:
To speed things up, the team decided to take photographs of the Queen Mother and post them around the plant wherever a press was under construction.
'We passed out the pictures and said, `This is what it's supposed to look like,'*' Depew says. 'That's obviously not how I learned to do it in engineering school, but I figured if it worked, what the heck.'
Thursday, April 15:
Falling into place
Crews now had three or four presses operational. A team of Delphi draftsmen were working from midnight till 7 a.m., creating official blueprints of the machines the engineers outside were rigging into place.
Documentation was more than a formality. Ten years ago, a factory could have run assembly lines virtually any way it pleased, as long as the end product was acceptable.
But new rules took effect in the mid-1990s. This is the decade of QS-9000 quality standards. To be an automotive supplier today, a plant must have formal, written documentation for every step of production.
Merely obtaining the certification for QS-9000 takes months. Avon had days - if that.
With help from Delphi, Avon was able to expedite the inspection process. The quality auditors came into the plant and inspected the work as it was being done. That meant that as a new steam pipe went into place, it could be approved.
As another press came up, it could be certified. As its first products appeared, they could be approved by the customer.
Friday, April 16:
As the week ended, Avon had rebuilt most of its 27 presses. Some of the experts on loan, such as Toyota's Wagner, were beginning to pack up and leave. The Avon team had the situation under control. By the first of the week, it would be business as usual.
'We were down to our last day of inventory as the system came back up,' marvels Mayes. 'Our last day's worth.'
For a crisis that came within a single day of shutting down much of the American auto industry, the ending was a strangely happy one.
Avon is now a more efficient supplier, with production flexibility in two plants. It has new tooling in place and more capacity for added business.
Did the fire scare Delphi, GM or Toyota into creating a duplicate supply base? Hardly, says Mayes. But it did prompt Delphi to review its supply chain.
In fact, one year before the fire, Delphi had looked for a second supplier of radiator seals. But no one in North America could give Delphi the seals it wanted in the volume it needed at the cost it expected except Avon. While several companies produce gaskets, few cared to make the low-margin radiator gaskets.
In effect, Avon held a virtual industry monopoly on production of that unexciting little gasket.
Now Delphi is making sure suppliers have plans in place to recover quickly from a production crash.
Meanwhile, Toyota officials say they have always believed in the merits of dual sourcing - not across the board but at least on certain commodities. The company says this policy ensures the availability of key parts and fosters competition among the vendors.
But dual suppliers are an expensive luxury these days. Companies everywhere are sole-sourcing more parts, with less duplication of costly factories. Automakers are embracing exclusive relationships with suppliers. The industry is dotted with factories that are exclusive sources of parts.
So there remains a danger that the events in Albion could be replayed elsewhere someday. In the end, the industry's best defense appears to be to make sure suppliers have recovery plans in place in case disaster strikes.
But Mayes says there was a positive side to the agonizing experience.
'The whole supply chain came closer together and learned about each other,' he says. 'We now have a stronger supplier, and we strengthened our relationship with our own customers. We learned more about the system and improved it.
'We grew. Our supplier grew. We all learned to communicate better. The supply chain now serves the industry better. How can you be unhappy about that?'
Lindsay Chappell is an Automo tive News staff reporter based in Nashville, Tenn.