DETROIT -- Richard E. Dauch, the founder of American Axle & Manufacturing whose 50-year automotive career also included helping to resuscitate Chrysler three decades ago and managing Volkswagen's first U.S. plant, died Friday at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He was 71.
His death, from an illness that was not disclosed, was confirmed by American Axle and Purdue University, where he played fullback while studying industrial management and science.
In 1993, Dauch turned five General Motors plants in Michigan and New York into American Axle, which generated a $66 million profit in its first year. The company had sales of $2.9 billion in 2012, when his son, David, succeeded him as CEO.
He cleaned up a drug-infested Detroit neighborhood by building American Axle's headquarters there and arm-wrestled workers on the assembly line. But in 2008 he was vilified by the UAW during a bitter 84-day strike that contributed to the eventual closing of American Axle's Detroit plant as production shifted to Mexico.
He started the company after retiring in 1991 as head of manufacturing at Chrysler, where he developed processes that helped the company return to profitability and repay loans guaranteed by the federal government.
"Dick was practicing lean manufacturing and leading the quality revolution years before those terms became part of the business conversation," former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca said in an e-mailed statement Friday. "He put his heart and soul into the American auto industry."
Dauch was hired by GM in 1964 and became the youngest plant manager of its Chevrolet Division at age 30 before joining Volkswagen in 1976.