French supplier Faurecia, after acquiring Ford Motor Co.'s unwanted interiors plant near Detroit a year ago, has become one of the largest automotive companies in North America -- and is poised to become even more important.
Acquiring the Saline, Mich., factory added more than $1 billion to Faurecia's interiors business and, the company says, made it the largest interiors supplier in North America.
But that's just the beginning.
The factory, which supplies instrument panels, consoles and door panels for almost every car and truck Ford makes in North America, is slated to become a center for Faurecia (FOR'-see-uh) to introduce a stream of European-branded parts for American vehicles from Ford, General Motors and Chrysler Group.
Chief among those planned products: mass-produced carbon fiber parts, the new holy grail of the auto industry.
Automakers have sought an affordable source of the lightweight carbon fiber composites to help them cut vehicle mass to meet demanding new fuel economy regulations. The problem: There is little manufacturing capacity for big-volume carbon fiber parts. Those parts are too expensive to use and too fussy to manufacture compared with stamped steel. Except for a part here or there, carbon fiber still resides in the world of ultraexpensive luxury cars, Formula One racers and fighter jets.
An investment in mass production of carbon fiber parts by a deep-pocketed global supplier such as Faurecia could change that scenario. Faurecia, thanks to the new Ford business, ranks No. 7 on the Automotive News list of the top 100 global suppliers with worldwide parts sales to automakers of $22.5 billion in 2012.
Mike Heneka believes Faurecia is up to the task, now that the company has acquired a Detroit-area factory with 1.3 million square feet, a trained work force and supportive nearby customers.
"We're going to put the technology into Saline," says Heneka, president of Faurecia North America, who negotiated the deal to acquire the Saline business. "So far, it's really only practical for high-end cars in Europe with very low production runs. But we now have a proprietary manufacturing process for it that would make it viable here.
"It's really remarkable," he says. "You could easily lift a carbon fiber hood and carry it by yourself. We could even make trucks lighter if we wanted."
But first he needed a factory and a doorway into the Detroit 3. He also had to win over the work force -- which is still a work in progress, according to the plant's UAW leadership.
"Things are moving forward, but it's still going to take a while to get the relationship worked out," says Jason Heath, chairman of Saline's UAW Local 892.
The union is intently watching job numbers at Saline. Since Faurecia stepped in, those have fallen to 1,600 today from about 2,300 as the company turned over a large piece of Saline's final assembly to a third-party minority-owned supplier, Detroit Manufacturing Systems.
But Heath is optimistic.
"We should be able to bring in more work now," he says. "Our costs are competitive with anybody, we have a flexible work schedule and we were already one of the best plants in the country."