NUMMI Suppliers Lose Their Customer: Can Lean Help Them Survive the Loss?

Looks like it’s really all over for NUMMI, the Toyota/GM joint auto manufacturing venture in Fremont, CA. Last summer, I wrote a post about the strong possibility of Toyota’s closing the plant (NUMMI: Things Are Looking Gloomy). The plant was losing money. Located in a high-wage area, even potential UAW concessions didn’t seem like enough to allow the plant to continue. And now Toyota has decided to close the plant in April as a result of GM’s pulling out of the joint venture when it filed for bankruptcy. Toyota couldn’t do it alone.

Besides the loss of 4700 jobs at the NUMMI plant, the toll on suppliers will be even greater, according to a December 24th Wall Street Journal article (subscription required). According to Bruce Kern, executive director of the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, tens of thousands of people work for first and second-tier suppliers to the plant. His organization is working on finding new business for some of these suppliers. While Toyota plans to continue use the top 25 suppliers, this still leaves many suppliers without their key customer. Many suppliers have had nearly total dependence on the auto industry and have not diversified. It looks like another blow to the California economy from this closing, one that will reverberate through the NUMMI supply chain.

While another WSJ article describes many suppliers to Detroit automakers as surviving the downturn better than expected, though perhaps not well-poised financially for any big ramp-ups, these suppliers appear to be in potentially worse shape. Many of the NUMMI suppliers are small businesses that have not gotten the credit and considerations that saved some of their larger Detroit brethren from bankruptcy. Of course, the threat of the NUMMI closure and its economic impact has been hanging over the supply chain for quite some time. It appears that some of the suppliers have faced the problem head-on as soon as the automotive downturn started and have been proactively pursuing other business opportunities to stay afloat. But how many of the suppliers did not? And how many can get enough new business to survive?

Because NUMMI was focussed on using lean manufacturing principles and practices that were flowed down to its supply base, there should theoretically be quite a few well-run suppliers who could be suppliers of choice for other industries, should they have the capabilities to make the transition to supplying products that take advantage of their core competencies. A few things are working against them, however. Not to make too many gross generalizations, but many manufactures are better at operations than sales. Customer diversification for a small company identified with the automotive industry is a huge challenge. Lean companies will have an advantage in eliminating waste, doing more with less and being suppliers of choice. Lean can help spur growth and give competitive advantage, but only when there are growth opportunities to take advantage of. Lean suppliers may be able to survive longer than their peers, but only if they find enough business to keep them afloat and new customers to enable them to thrive.

Sherry R. Gordon

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