One of the oldest U.S. manufacturers still in business, Collins & Aikman Corporation launched a major restructuring plan in 1996 that increased its automotive focus (as measured by automotive sales as a percentage of total sales) by more than 50 percent. The plan, executed over a three-year period, included several key acquisitions and divestitures, the installation of a new senior management team experienced in the automotive industry and the relocation of corporate headquarters to southeastern Michigan – the heart of the nation’s automotive industry. Five years after the plan was implemented, Collins & Aikman is well on its way to realizing its potential for growth and profitability in the automotive industry. It has penetrated 100 percent of the top 10 selling cars in North America, and 90 percent of the country’s top 10 selling trucks, sport utility vehicles and vans. A global leader in automotive floor and acoustic systems – and a leading supplier of automotive fabric, interior trim and convertible-top systems – Collins & Aikman posted $2 billion in sales this year.
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Thomas E. Evans, who joined the company at the end of its three-year transition period, says, “I joined Collins & Aikman in April 1999 because I was excited by the strengths of its core businesses, and by the potential to build a world-class automotive supplier. From my perspective, our unmatched design and styling excellence, and acoustic expertise – the synergistic ‘art and science’ of automotive interiors – are the core strengths that distinguish our company from its competitors, and will drive our future growth.”
A Legacy of Success
Collins & Aikman got its start in 1850 as a textile manufacturer in North Carolina. Initially, the company was focused on supplying private residences and office buildings. With the onset of the automotive industry, the company expanded into this new marketplace by way of a number of innovations. In 1920, Collins & Aikman produced the first fabric designed specifically for the automotive industry for Fisher Brothers. Nine years later, the company introduced back coating for automotive fabrics.
In 1957, Collins & Aikman became the first convertible-top manufacturer to offer actuation for a retractable hardtop. The following year, the company solidified its reputation as a leader in convertible-top technology by creating the first “flip-top” convertible for the Ford Thunderbird.
Drawing on its textile manufacturing expertise, the company produced a molded automotive floor carpet, using a polyethylene backing system, in 1959. In 1972, thanks to its growing reputation in the automotive industry, Collins & Aikman became the first North American supplier to Toyota Motor Company. It remains Toyota’s oldest North American supplier today, a relationship that Evans proudly calls “a real success story.” That coup was followed by two more significant achievements: the reintroduction of the velour product to the automotive industry in 1974; and the development of a mass-backed carpet, featuring an integrated heat shield and noise barrier insulator extruded to form the backing, in 1978.
Building on Tradition
Collins & Aikman endeavors to preserve the manufacturing heritage and corporate momentum that have sustained the company for 150 years, even as the company establishes its new image as a significant player in the automotive industry. “We are moving to a much more visible industry,” says Evans. “In this day and age, you have to keep marketing yourself. We’ve made great inroads in that direction. I couldn’t be happier at the rate it’s going. We’ve planted our flag at our global headquarters in Michigan so that we can provide outstanding service and support to our customers, while at the same time strengthen our overall customer and supplier/partner relationships with other senior executives in the automotive industry. All our ads are seen in the right places. People now know our name in the financial community. We are now a company that’s being talked about as a significant player in the automotive industry.”
Indeed, the recognition extends worldwide. The company’s operations span the globe, with 63 facilities and nearly 16,000 employees in 12 countries, including Austria, Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and East Asia, in addition to the United States. The company is seeking to expand its European operations, where it is presently a $325 million player.
From its 60,000 square-foot global headquarters in Troy, Mich., the company oversees three divisions: North American Automotive Interior Systems; European Automotive Interior Systems and Specialty Automotive Products – which includes fabric products and Collins & Aikman’s Dura Convertible systems.
One Stop for Interiors
Collins & Aikman enjoys the distinction of having the broadest automotive interior-related product lines in the industry. From carpet and acoustic systems, floor mats and molded-plastic interior trim to automotive fabrics and convertible-top systems, virtually everything that you can see, touch or that can affect what you hear in a vehicle’s interior can be supplied by Collins & Aikman.
“There is no direct head-to-head competition for our complete product line,” says Evans. “We’ve got the broadest portfolio to be brought together for automotive interiors. We’ve also got the broadest line of acoustic products that can be integrated with our other products. We bring together styling and acoustic technology to form an excellent value package for our customers.”
Those customers include both Tier I and Tier II companies. “We’re probably one of the few multi-billion dollar companies that straddle the fence between OEM and Tier I companies,” says Evans. “Most companies deal somewhat exclusively with one or the other.” This unique position gives Collins & Aikman a considerable advantage in winning new business, and provides the company with a significant growth opportunity that is not available to most of its competitors.
Customers around the world recognize Collins & Aikman’s excellence in design and surface styling. The company’s ability to integrate advanced acoustic technology with its design and styling capabilities truly sets it apart from its competition. As vehicle interior acoustic performance becomes increasingly more important with the widespread use of such electronic devices as cell phones, voice-activated controls, Internet, e-mail and on-board navigation systems, Collins & Aikman capitalizes on its advanced acoustic technology, including leading-edge noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) testing facilities. The company plans to integrate its acoustic expertise into its complete product portfolio, a strategy exemplified by the innovative fabric construction for a new convertible-top system the company designed specifically to reduce interior noise and enhance cell phone usage in the vehicle.
As it continues moving in new directions, this venerable company can lay claim to a bright future. “I see us becoming the premier automotive interior surfaces and noise-management products supplier in the world,” says Evans. “To do that, we have to leverage our core competencies of acoustic expertise and design and styling excellence, skills that collectively our peers just can’t match. As we move forward, we’ll further integrate these core competencies across our entire product line, which means we’ll establish a unique way to differentiate our existing products, develop new products and build a foundation for long-term growth for both our top and bottom lines.”