DETROIT - John Franciosi planned to be a teacher. But he became a self-described "manufacturing rat" who is helping to overhaul the Chrysler group's labor relations.
In 1977, teaching jobs were few. Franciosi wound up working on the assembly line at Chrysler Corp.'s assembly plant in Windsor, Ontario, instead of in a classroom.
Twenty-eight years later, Franciosi, 50, is still in Chrysler plants - as the Chrysler group's senior vice president of employee relations. He is deeply involved in the company's attempts to improve its manufacturing practices and match Toyota's quality by 2007. With his high-school buddy, Chrysler group COO Tom LaSorda, Franciosi is pushing for change:
"Being a manufacturing rat my whole career at heart, and having a number of years working in the continuous-improvement job, I've got a pretty clear vision of how we need to change the way we operate," Franciosi says.
The Chrysler group's labor relations reflect the evolving "close working relationship" between the Big 3 and the UAW, says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Fierce competition from Asian and European brands is reducing union-management tension, he says.
"It is an extremely difficult and competitive market," Cole says. "That is forging a closer relationship between labor and management driven by recognition of their mutual interdependency."
Domestic makers are sharing business information with the union, increasing trust, Cole says. The two sides know that "they will sink or swim together," he says.
Franciosi is spearheading the changes in Chrysler group plants as the company moves to what it calls "smart manufacturing."
The winner by default
"I got this job by default," Franciosi says of his role as the Chrysler group's chief labor negotiator.
Before the 1999 national labor talks, "Denny Pawley, who was my boss at the time, approached me and said, 'Hey, I need to talk to you, and the subject is your career.' I wasn't sure what he meant by that."
Pawley, the former manufacturing chief at Chrysler Corp., wanted Franciosi, a manufacturing expert, to move to the negotiating table.
"In 1999 we went through negotiations, and that is where I got my first real grounding of behind-the-scenes bargaining," Franciosi says.
LaSorda and Franciosi share a background in creating lean manufacturing practices. The two high-school buddies maintained a professional association after graduating from the University of Windsor in 1977.
LaSorda arrived at Chrysler in January 2002 after working in manufacturing at General Motors.
"It just so happens when Tom came on board that our vision is identical," Franciosi says. "It is aligned."
With the UAW, the two executives created a team to benchmark world-class manufacturing operations, including Toyota, Franciosi says.
That led to a letter of understanding paving the way for work teams.
"It is lean manufacturing, but we call it smart manufacturing," Franciosi says. "We are picking the momentum up and deploying small work teams, which are a necessary part of a true, lean system."
In the past, the Chrysler group has told the UAW its plants were missing productivity benchmarks.
"But we have never given them the 'how' to change," Franciosi says. "This is the first time we have actually given them a 'how.' "
Work teams are a growing practice in the industry, Cole says. GM is "very advanced." If anything, he says, the Chrysler group is playing catch-up.
Cole says that Chrysler, while more profitable than GM or Ford, still needs to cut structural costs. In Cole's view, GM and Ford have a greater sense of urgency about improving manufacturing efficiency.
Asked to describe his relationship with Nate Gooden, director of the UAW's DaimlerChrysler department, Franciosi displays his to-the-point style.
"He and I are very transparent," Franciosi says of Gooden. "No matter how stinky the diaper might be, we deal with it."
Franciosi is one of the few Chrysler executives to have survived the company's litany of crises - including management upheaval and the 1998 acquisition of Chrysler Corp. by Daimler-Benz AG - during his 28-year career.
Now he is turning his attention to the CAW agreement.
The Chrysler group's two assembly plants in Canada are critical. One builds minivans and the Chrysler Pacifica. The other builds the company's rear-wheel-drive cars, including the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Dodge Magnum.
Franciosi goes into the talks seeking labor rates on a par with nonunionized U.S. transplants operated by Toyota, Nissan and Honda.
"I am not going to go down quietly as it relates to leveling the playing field with these guys," Franciosi says. "I really believe that if we don't find a way to level it vs. the people who are taking our share, then down the road it is going to be a very serious issue."