Behr Industries extended its German furniture manufacturing business that began in 1912 to making wood trim parts for high-end luxury cars. The company expanded to the U.S. in 1990, opening its Grand Rapids, Mich. plant, which now contributes roughly half the company’s revenue. It has achieved its premier standing in the industry by working closely with customers to deliver the very highest quality wood trim components used in BMW, Mercedes, Lincoln, Chrysler, Cadillac, and other luxury vehicles. Michael Stecher, Plant Production Manager of Behr’s U.S. operations explains the reasons for the company’s success as a combination of factors.
“We strive to empower our employees, work closely with our customers, and provide innovative products to meet the needs of our customers.”
In some cases the needs of the customers are left unspoken, but one mark of an innovative organization is that it sees customer trends and anticipates their desires, then delivers the product the customer wants when the demand begins to appear. This is the case with Behr’s PUREWOOD product.
“Traditional wood trim products in automobiles are fundamentally different from wood furniture products,” explains Stecher. “Fine wood furniture has a natural look and feel, so that when you touch it, you feel the pores and the grain of the wood. Behr wanted to bring this feeling into the automotive interior. ”
Behr’s wood trim products go through as many as 80 different process steps before they are ready to be installed in a car. Craftsmanship and attention to detail are the hallmarks of Behr’s products, and the finish applied to the wood is critical not only to the look of the product but to myriad tests wood products undergo in order to assure they are durable and safe when subjected to sunlight, extreme temperatures, and frequent handling. The traditional method of meeting these criteria has been to use a heavy high-gloss lacquer finish to protect the underlying wood veneer.
Behr’s team wanted to provide a product that more closely matches the experience of fine wood products. They invented a process that retains the safety and durability attributes of the lacquered wood elements but presents the look and feel of the original wood. The process involves using an oil-based resin product to finish the wood veneer so that it resembles finely sanded wood. The result is a wood product that is reminiscent of the furniture owners of luxury class vehicles are likely to have in their homes.
“We are very proud of our result. The focus of development has always been the inner hardening of the structure of the wood,” says Stecher of the PUREWOOD process.
Location, location, and relationship
Behr’s facility is located in close proximity to its customers’ planning and design studios, which makes for a close working relationship. “We constantly have visitors from the various design studios,” explains Stecher. The company’s location makes it easy to work closely with the designers responsible for creating the car interiors. They are able to collaborate from the earliest stages, when design considerations and changes are more easily accommodated.
Stecher explains, “We are a one-stop-shop for our customers. Unlike our competitors, we can offer the full range of services from design through production and delivery under one roof.” Most trim providers are classified as tier two providers because they deliver products to the tier one manufacturers. But Behr is often classified as a tier one provider because it works directly with the manufacturers during the design and development stages. This relationship lets the company be highly effective in delivering the best product for a particular design.
In addition to more emphasis on wood in luxury class vehicles, customers are looking for choices in interior layouts. As woods become even more appealing, particularly because of Behr’s PUREWOOD products, auto manufacturers are striving to offer more choices to their customers, a trend that is growing in the U.S. and also in the Asian market. It is seen as a primary differentiator for high-end vehicles because the cost of wood trim is likely to keep it out of mid-range cars.
Behr is particularly proud of the advances the company has made in leveraging its workforce. Says Stecher, “We recently installed an advanced Shop Floor Management system that has brought better efficiency and empowered our employees to make decisions on their own to improve our processes.” The results are already starting to show up in better productivity due to employee decision-making, and their ability to determine best practices based on their hands-on experience.
Woods from different varieties of trees have vastly different characteristics in terms of moisture content, oils, porosity, grain structure, and many other factors. And those characteristics differ even between trees of the same kind. The challenge of handling this variety to achieve a standard look and quality is difficult to manage. It is compounded by the inherent complexity of the manufacturing process that combines the wood veneer with several layers of other materials. In as many as 80 different process steps, the product must be handled and evaluated, then treated according to its unique characteristics. Most of Behr’s employees are specially trained and uniquely qualified to keep the process on track and assure the products match the required outcome.
Turning the tides
Historically Behr has given up business to European manufacturers, but that trend is changing. The improvements gained from the Shop Floor Management system combined with an increase in employee motivation added to productivity gains. These changes have contributed to lower costs in the manufacturing process that can be passed on to customers making Behr more price-competitive.
At the same time, the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar to the Euro has reached a new high, meaning U.S. goods are less expensive than comparable European goods. As Behr’s techer sees it, “In recent years we experienced a dip in our sales due mostly to an unfavorable exchange rate. We now see that we are getting back on track.”
Behr’s strategy of empowering its employees to make decisions about the way they work to produce a complex, high quality product is key to its competitive lead. The increasing demand for wood trim in luxury automobiles combined with the unique qualities the company’s PUREWOOD process can deliver mean the company is well poised to take advantage of any trading advantage for the overseas market. And the close working relationships with the U.S. automotive design houses gives Behr an additional competitive advantage.