As head of product development, quality and car operations for the Chrysler group, Rich Schaum has helped guide the automaker through the challenges of making the best use of Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz technology. The course he has charted has taken the automaker past product milestones such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Crossfire and the forthcoming LX platform, which will mark the return of rear-drive sedans to the Dodge and Chrysler lineups.
Schaum said in January that he will retire at the end of March, after 37 years with Chrysler. But before he goes, he presides over one final engineering project: the retooling of the annual SAE World Congress. Schaum spoke recently with Industry Editor Dale Jewett.
How did you approach the task of reversing the decline of the SAE show?
We had been disappointed in the falling attention on the exposition floor, even though the overall attendance at SAE is wonderful. It's become truly an international event.
The question was: How do we make the event itself better? So I had the idea that I would host some breakfast meetings. I held the first one here at DaimlerChrysler. And I contacted Ford and General Motors and invited 50 of the top-tier suppliers. I wanted to hear from them how to make it better from their perspective.
A key change for this year's show is the addition of a technology theater inside the exposition. Who came up with that idea?
The idea of the technology theater was SAE's. They wanted to have something right on the floor of the show where they could invite industry experts to speak in a panel forum about key issues confronting the industry. The SAE program is still organized around key technologies, but we want the speakers to give more of a business perspective than a true 100 percent technical perspective. It should help to get traffic down on the floor and get interest in these key issues.
How much resistance was there from suppliers about coming back to the show? Did you have to do much arm-twisting?
Some exhibitors that have withdrawn have rejoined the exposition. Others are taking sponsorships.
I was careful to remain neutral in this aspect. The big Tier 1 suppliers bring their technology shows to the automakers. They're willing to disclose, in confidence, things that are further out and more sensitive then they would do in a public forum.
But the advantage of the SAE show is it's an efficient way for an executive or manager to walk the floor and get an overview of what's out there.
Suppliers say they left the SAE show because the automakers weren't showing up. How do you deal with that issue?
There are three elements: To have the technology theater and have executives give presentations around central issues facing all of us; to have the exhibitions by the OEMs themselves; then the idea for automakers to have staff meetings, people from powertrain or procurement, down at Cobo. Then we'll take a couple of hours, walk the floor, maybe sit down and talk about what we saw.
This inability to get decision makers to the floor, I have to say I'm guilty of that. Because SAE is right on top of the Geneva auto show - for a company's senior management, you're in Geneva then you rush back on a plane to catch the banquet.
With the format of organizing the exposition around five key technology areas, you can get the overview in a very efficient way. In an hour you can go to the key areas an executive wants to see.
Were any import automakers asked to participate?
We did not want to restrict this to the Big 3. They were the ones that opted in. We invited Toyota, BMW and all the other automakers. Many of them are watching to see how it goes this year, measure the effectiveness of this venue.
Where do you want to see the SAE show head in future years?
We continue to drive for higher quality in the panel discussions. We don't want to diminish the activity and value of the technical papers. I do think - hope, frankly - that there's a spirited dialogue and debate about the issues. The more we have that interaction in an open way, the better the solutions will be because we're united in wanting to achieve all those objectives.
We're in a negative pricing environment. That will continue because of excess capacity. That's the environment in which we compete. From my perspective as an executive, that will stimulate debate. This is the perfect forum for it.