DETROIT -- After 18 years as an executive with Lear Corp., Jim Comer has become a partner with the company in a joint venture with about $365.7 million in annual sales.
Lear said this month that Comer had purchased stakes in two Lear joint ventures. Terms were not disclosed. Comer purchased:
Boss of 900
Comer now owns and operates five plants with 900 employees.
Comer, 58, was president of North American joint ventures and diversity at Lear, of Southfield, Mich., from 2000 until Dec. 31.
His new company, Comer Holdings LLC, of Southfield, Mich., was formed in October to take on the joint-venture business. Comer's application for minority-ownership status is pending with the Michigan Minority Business Development Council.
As CEO of Comer Holdings, Comer says he is both excited and nervous about his new role.
"It's sort of frightening. It's like buying your first house," Comer says. "But what I do know is this: I do have a lot of support both internally and externally from Bing and also from Lear."
Bing, CEO of Bing Group, said he told Lear last summer that he was interested in selling his interest in his joint venture.
"I was in a joint venture with Lear for 10 years on the seating side and the mirror side, and I learned the seating side pretty well, but I was never really able to get my arms around the mirror side," Bing said. "So I wanted to go back and really focus on the core part of my business, which was steel processing and steel stamping."
Dave Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the ownership changes are in line with restructuring that many suppliers are doing so they can stick to what they are best at and unload struggling operations.
Avoiding a crisis
"What is really going on here is a battle for survival," Cole said. "And what that means is companies are trying to figure out and craft what's core, what's not core for them."
Cole said supplier financial teams are watching the debt of various divisions and joint ventures and are trying to take action before they are in a crisis.
Comer acknowledged that Comer Holdings assumed some debt. He also says some of the divisions he acquired were losing money.
Bing said that the mirror business was added to his joint venture with Lear after Lear acquired the automotive division of United Technologies Corp. in 1999.
The operations Comer acquired from Bing include two plants in Berne, Ind., that make mirrors and a plant in Brownstown Township, Mich. They have combined annual sales of $292.3 million, Comer said.
In return, Bing purchased the Bing Assembly Systems plant in Highland Park, Mich. That plant previously was owned by the joint venture between Lear and Bing, and Bing will continue to supply Lear.
That leaves Bing with about 700 employees and revenue of between $180 million and $200 million. Bing said he plans to focus his efforts on his stamping and assembly and steel processing divisions.
Competition is fierce
That won't be easy. Competition in metal stamping is fierce; steel prices skyrocketed last year, and Bing said that those divisions also are struggling to make a profit.
"I would say we are no worse or no better than the rest of the supply base," Bing said. "We are fighting raw material prices."
The plants Comer acquired from the Piston Group are in Highland Park, Mich., and Newark, Del., and have annual sales of $73.4 million.
In a statement, Piston Automotive said: "The decision to sell our interest in JL Automotive was based on a strategy to refocus our resources on growing the Piston Group's key business units: Piston Automotive, Piston Modules and PASA Modules, all of which continue to be competitive and viable."
Comer says he is confident he can improve operations, in part because Lear's customers have signaled their desire to continue to do business.