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USA - Local auto suppliers feel pinch of GM bankruptcy

Most automotive suppliers in Shiawassee County jumped the General Motors ship well before Monday's bankruptcy announcement, but they are still struggling through rough waters. Of the county's 10 automotive suppliers, only a few still make products for GM vehicles, and those that do have already experienced severe cuts within the last few years. Williamston Products Inc. manufactures and installs interior automotive products for Detroit automakers through two locations - Owosso Township and Williamston. While 70 employees began working for the company in July 2008, the number has been reduced drastically, a spokesperson said.

“We've seen a lot of employee layoffs to both salary and hourly workers,” Jim Hunt, Owosso Township facility quality manager, said. “We make about 70 to 75 percent Chrysler products and the rest is GM, so we've seen a lot of layoffs in the last few months.” Hunt said he estimated more than 60 percent of the workforce had been laid off through a rolling layoff program. The program has hired back several employees based on demand, but with Chrysler and GM filing for bankruptcy, many are not expected to return. “I've worked in this business for nine years and I've never seen anything like this,” Hunt said. “We're writing a new rule book on how to handle this as we go.”

Hunt added a WPI human resources manager informs the facility of layoff notices. A spokesperson from the WPI human resources office in Williamston declined comment Wednesday. Shiawassee Economic Development Partnership President Justin Horvath said WPI's situation is far from unique. “We learned a long time ago that the key to managing the business side in the county is diversification,” Horvath said. “We're still beating the streets to help companies supplying the Big Three to get into other markets. It's the only way to preserve jobs in the community.”

Horvath said the SEDP has focused on smaller automotive suppliers such as WPI and Owosso-based S Group Automotive, which both employ fewer than 100 workers. He added smaller companies meant less drastic layoffs. A spokesperson for S Group Automotive said the company laid off fewer than 20 percent of its workforce in the last year as the supplier turned its focus to Ford products.

Henry Burmer, owner of Symmetrical Technologies in Owosso - also known as Owosso Tool and Die - said recently the company formerly did extensive die-casting for auto parts, but backed out because it had difficulties making a profit. Automotive suppliers outside Shiawassee County also have made several moves away from GM products.

Scott Zuckschwerdt, chairman of the shop committee for Flint Tool and Die Local 659, said the company is working on several GM products and has managed to avoid drastic layoffs. “Our facility here looks to be safe for a little while,” Zuckschwerdt said. “We have a bright future in GM, and in a year from now, we should be adding more workers, but we're going to see more smaller auto suppliers impacted in the future.”

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