Building dedications can be pretty dull, unless it's your building. But Friday's dedication of the American Axle & Manufacturing headquarters in Detroit was an interesting mix of community leadership and family -- both CEO Dick Dauch's family and the AAM corporate family.
Dick Dauch's vision, philosophy, optimism -- and of course his personality - came shining through. It was a personal touch that the dedication was on Dauch's 62nd birthday and the audience sang "Happy Birthday" to him.
The AAM dedication program also included a plant tour, which reminded me of the last time I walked through a plant with Dick Dauch. It was about 14 years ago and Dauch was executive vice president of worldwide manufacturing at Chrysler Corp. We were at Chrysler's stamping plant in Twinsburg, Ohio, for a couple of events, including an industry panel discussion sponsored by the Cleveland chapter of the Young Presidents Organization.
There was some down time between functions and Dauch offered to take me through the plant.
I accepted. After all, who can resist the soft allure of a stamping plant? Kuh-DOONG. Kuh-DOONG. Kuh-DOONG.
That was the era of self-flagellation for the U.S. auto industry; when all things Japanese were considered superior and all things American were thought inferior, especially when it came to manufacturing.
One metric that Wall Street used to taunt Big 3 executives was the speed at which dies could be changed in those giant presses that stamp out sheet metal. It was a productivity flashpoint because Japanese automakers had a huge advantage. They could do in a few minutes what took the Big 3 hours.
But Chrysler's Twinsburg stamping plant had significantly narrowed the gap and Dauch was anxious to show it off. So off we went.
Dick Dauch was proud of Twinsburg. When he joined Chrysler in 1980 the Twinsburg plant was wracked with problems, including productivity issues. Things were so bad, he says, that some of Chrysler's honchos wanted to close the plant.
He still boasts that with a little plain talk, UAW and company officials were able to sort out the issues, keep the plant alive and improve its productivity. On the day we walked through the plant it was clear that Dauch was a hero to the rank-and-file.
Dauch stopped and visited with workers, calling them by name, asking about their kids' athletic careers and chatting about other personal or family events.
Why the friendliness? Because Dick Dauch took care of the workers, one of them said. One example the worker cited: Dauch had overruled a plant management decision and allowed a curtain to be installed on the door to the loading dock. The end result? It made winter days more bearable at that end of the plant.
Not too long after that day at Twinsburg, Dauch left Chrysler, reportedly fired by Bob Lutz. And not too long after that he and a few colleagues came up with the idea that led to American Axle & Manufacturing.
At Friday's dedication of the AAM headquarters Dauch talked about having helped Lee Iacocca revitalize Chrysler's manufacturing operations. He also is proud of being part of the team that developed the Chrysler technical center in Auburn Hills.
But he couldn't help taking a shot at his former employer.
The AAM building is better than the Chrysler technical center because it's in the city of Detroit, he said. And AAM isn't a subsidiary of anybody.