"This provides a forum for peers of different companies who have similar issues, whether they are human resources executives or presidents of companies or e-business information technology executives, or whatever," De Koker said. "It provides a chance to sit with your peers and address issues that you address in your company every day."
The Original Equipment Suppliers Association was formed less than four years ago. Its membership - consisting of Tier 1, 2, 3 and 4 companies that supply parts, components, materials and services to original-equipment manufacturers in North America - has grown to 272 companies with global sales of $280 billion last year.
The group is based in Troy, Mich. It is a sister organization to the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
De Koker, 58, a 40-year industry veteran, said the biggest challenges facing his group's members involve competition in the marketplace and relations with automakers.
"The OEMs need to change their behavior, and the suppliers need to change their behavior," he said. "It's not just a one-way street. We're both behaving in a way that's getting us to a zero-profit, zero-return-on-investment industry, where nobody wants to invest. So you don't have the capital, and you end up self-destructing."
He recommends more collaboration among automakers and suppliers during the development of vehicles. Japanese automakers have shown that collaboration cuts production problems, improves quality and reduces costs.
"With the Big 3, there tends to still be us-vs.-them," he said. "The relationship is with purchasing. Purchasing has no idea what to do with something that is offered that would involve something in the manufacturing plant. They just want the lowest price."
There are signs of change. Each of the Big 3 has started shared savings programs that assign engineers to work with purchasing departments and suppliers, De Koker said, adding: "Here it is, 2001 and 2002, and it's finally starting to happen."