Three years ago, Mary Petrovich got a call from an executive at defense contractor General Dynamics asking if she would take over the struggling Detroit-area commercial vehicle supplier AxleTech International.
Petrovich knew all about AxleTech because she had run the company and reinvented it. Twice.
Petrovich had led the fast- growing company's sale to General Dynamics seven years earlier, in 2008. But in 2015, AxleTech was in trouble.
"There was some hesitation," admits Petrovich, a Harvard MBA who once ran Dura Automotive's billion-dollar global driver control business. "Only because I wanted to make sure I had it in me to do this a third time."
Her idea of turning a company around? "Seven days a week, 80 hours a week until you succeed," she says.
"But I felt like it was my baby and I was responsible for it," she says. "I knew that, no matter how ugly it looked to other people, there were still possibilities to make it great. It took us three years to dig them out, but we've done it and we're ready to go. Again."
Petrovich was on Automotive News' list of 100 Leading Women in the North America Auto Industry in 2000 when she was at Dura.
Today, Petrovich, 55, is leading a team to take AxleTech into a new transportation role. AxleTech, a supplier of low-volume axles, brakes and aftermarket parts for heavy-duty commercial and defense vehicles, is positioning itself to supply electric drivetrains for vehicles other than cars.
It is a vision — shared by an increasing number in the auto industry — that just as electrification is taking hold of passenger vehicles, it is also a viable strategy for commercial vehicles.
That means electrified delivery trucks, Class 8 trucks, garbage trucks, utility vehicles, military vehicles, buses, construction vehicles, airport shuttles — anything that moves on wheels, other than cars.
But even cars cause a twinkle in the eye of the hard-charging Detroit executive.
"Since this business started 100 years ago, the focus has been on heavy trucks and off-road," she told Automotive News. "But to be honest, the work we're doing now in electric vehicles, in areas like motors — they touch both the truck world and the car world. Some of the innovations we're providing on the heavy truck side have not been implemented on the car side.
"So I wouldn't see it as a stretch that little AxleTech could have technology that could creep over into passenger cars."
"Little AxleTech," as she calls it — with 2017 sales of about $250 million — has been something of a Detroit stray cat for the past two decades. And apparently only Petrovich knows how to make it purr.
The company is the original industrial operation once known as Rockwell International. AxleTech still operates the century-old factory in Oshkosh, Wis., built by the industrialist Col. Willard Rockwell in 1919.
But since the early 2000s, the company has had trouble being "owned."
In 2002, Rockwell's descendant company, Meritor Automotive, determined that AxleTech didn't fit with its core operations and put it on the market. The unit was acquired by a private equity firm, and Mary Petrovich was recruited as its first CEO.
"When we took over this business in 2002, most people thought it was going to die pretty quickly," she says. "It had everything going against it. We were very aggressive in getting out of that."