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Sunday, 02 March 2014 22:42

Q&A: Nigel Francis, Senior Automotive Adviser, State of Michigan

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Nigel Francis Nigel Francis COURTESY PHOTO

With the automotive industry back above pre-recession production levels, the state of Michigan wants to ensure that the momentum continues. To oversee the state’s efforts, Gov. Rick Snyder in September appointed auto industry veteran Nigel Francis as the state’s first senior automotive adviser. He also serves as senior vice president of the Automotive Industry Office housed in the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Francis spoke with MiBiz about the state’s strategic plan for the industry ahead of his appearance at the Van Andel Global Trade Center’s Automotive Suppliers Symposium at Grand Valley State University on March 6.

What is the basis for the strategic plan for Michigan’s auto industry?

Typically, a car company will look forward 10 years, maybe a little more. … What we have done in that strategic plan is look forward 30 years. … We want to create an environment within the state for great companies in Michigan to flourish, so we felt that we needed to look substantially further into the future than those great companies. … What we concluded is that there are three foundational elements that we need to have right in the state.

What are those three things?

We need to have the right technologies in the state, the right talent behind those technologies, and of course the fuel to make all of that happen is capital. … The creation of that strategy allows people to focus. Everyone has limited resources so you can focus those resources into what really matters.

How does the state play in automotive technologies?

There are four generic technology areas that we believe are critically important for the future of our industry and the future of the state: connected, automated and autonomous automobiles; lightweight and multi-material vehicles; advanced powertrain and propulsion systems; and world-class manufacturing and supply chain management and logistics.

How do you address the needs and issues of all the different companies throughout the state’s massive automotive supply chain?

The state and the automotive office — and indeed, the MEDC — have different value to different sizes of companies. The legislative landscape is very important for the large companies. For the medium-size companies, I think what we can do at the MEDC is help them with their capital needs, their talent needs and their government relations needs. I also think we can help in terms of promotion. For the smaller companies, oftentimes they just need a bit of help connecting the dots. We have an initiative which has been incredibly successful called Pure Michigan Business Connect. It’s basically a match-making service where we put together the demand side with the supply side.

Now that Michigan is a Right to Work state, what will be the role of unions in the automotive industry?

I think they play an integral part in the automotive industry with or without Right to Work — particularly in one of their more traditional roles, which is to train the workforce. The final analysis is that there are great people behind (car companies’) products. Those great people are not born great. They (become) great by training and education. What we have in the state right now is people working on production lines. (Manufacturing) is in their blood…

Where does manufacturing fit into the 30-year strategic plan?

Car companies make cars in the region that they sell them. They’re not in the foreign exchange business or the logistics business. We all know that the growth is expected to be in China and India. So what China and India need is know-how. They need the intellectual know-how and the manufacturing know-how that we have here in Michigan. … So one thing to understand is that we’ve got that know-how and it’s not going to go away, but it’s going to be more of a global outreach.

How do you see that taking shape?

Wherever you go in the world in the automotive business, you find CEOs, managers and skilled trades and manufacturing people from Michigan. They are there because they have that know-how that takes years and years and years to transfer from one person to another. … New people entering the field will have to be educated in different ways. That’s why the talent aspect is so foundationally important.

What excites you most about the auto sector in the state?

We are very lucky here. … We are the number one state for vehicle production and vehicle R&D by so much — the number one state for powertrain production, and the list goes on. We should be proud of it and promote it.

Interview conducted and condensed by Nick Manes.

Read 2965 times Last modified on Sunday, 02 March 2014 19:45

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