Akebono maintained its North American executive offices in suburban Detroit to be as close as possible to GM. But the U.S. auto landscape was evolving. GM could see disruption ahead and had begun rearranging its internal parts operations to operate separately from the automaker. GM spun off Delphi as a public company in 1999. But in 2005, Delphi filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Akebono swooped in to buy its flailing partner's stake in Ambrake, giving the Japanese company sole dibs on the big prize of GM business. Akebono rechristened its U.S. operations under its Japanese name and relocated the headquarters to Elizabethtown.
The next few years would be a roller coaster for Akebono. The 2008-09 financial crisis and GM's own bankruptcy caused Akebono's outlook to change, and it scaled back its U.S. factory capacity. But the market rebound that followed nearly gave the supplier whiplash.
When its U.S. demand started surging around 2013, Akebono struggled to keep up. At first, its employees were asked to work overtime, and then on weekends, and eventually on holidays, seven days a week.
"That's how we managed to get by," said spokesman Shingo Suzuki.
That hectic factory pace left no time for plant maintenance, and Akebono's equipment became increasingly glitchy.
As a workaround, Akebono began relying on the costly practice of flying in parts from other plants around the world to keep customers on schedule.
"First, our labor costs rose," Suzuki recalled. "Then emergency shipping costs followed. As such, costs piled up considerably, pushing us into deep trouble."