Mark White sees the massive disruption in the automotive industry caused by electric vehicles as an opportunity rather than a threat.
As president and CEO of Grand Haven-based Shape Corp., White is leading the Tier 1 supplier’s embrace of the next automotive frontier. White disclosed at a recent conference in Grand Rapids that Shape will surpass $1 billion in sales this year for the first time because of investments in new segments in Michigan, Ohio and around the world.
Founded in 1974, Shape was known for decades as the world leader in automotive bumper systems. In recent years, though, Shape executives “had to start thinking about the business a little differently,” White said during the Michigan Automotive Suppliers Symposium at Grand Valley State University on March 9. Shape now has 11 manufacturing plants and five tech centers around the world, and most recently has invested in four high-tech aluminum extrusion lines to support the electric vehicle market.
During his presentation, White said that his mindset heading into the EV transition is that it’s a “once in a generation opportunity. For me, it starts there. This is the opportunity to do something different, to reinvent, and it’s an opportunity to discover where you can unlock more value for your company and customers, first and foremost. Don’t let that opportunity slip by.”
Meanwhile, Shape also has launched several initiatives to overcome industry labor challenges, which he and other executives say is among the most significant barriers to growth.
White spoke with MiBiz outside of the auto suppliers symposium to discuss these opportunities, challenges, and the company’s role of being a model for inclusion in a county that has experienced diversity, equity and inclusion headwinds.
You said earlier that Shape would be passing $1 billion in revenue this year. Is that a milestone for the company?
That’s the highest it’s been. Business is growing, and a lot of that is due to the battery electric trends and our strategy to really extend into body structures in addition to bumper systems because the impact requirements on battery electric vehicles are much more significant. And we’re continuing to make investments in technology and in footprint in order to service it. That’s kind of what’s driving it.
What can you say about capital investments the company has been making?
We’re heavily investing in our business, both here in Michigan in Grand Haven as well as in Ohio and really throughout the world. We opened a new plant in Ohio called the Aluminum Center of Excellence. It’s really designed to be for world-class automotive and structural extruding. Not just extrusions, but assemblies. There’s a need in the market right now in the aluminum extrusion industry for that. That was a tremendous investment on our part, but it’s really based on the voice of our customers and the needs of the market, and it’s been tremendous to add to our portfolio. We have a grand opening at the plant at the end of April.
You seem to hold quite a bit of optimism for the EV transition. What’s your message to suppliers down the chain that maybe aren’t so optimistic?
Obviously, the industry is in a tremendous transition right now, and then on top of that, you have a lot of external, macro factors that play in, whether it’s inflation, labor markets and things like that. It can be choppy waters right now. But I think with that comes change and opportunity, and I think what we’ve tried to do and what I encourage other companies to do is use the disruptive time as a chance to re-evaluate your business model. Use it as an opportunity to take control of factors that are happening to you, and think about strategies on how you can maybe influence some of that.
Talent is a great example. We have numerous strategies around our talent and talent development and partnerships with high schools and universities. We have kicked off and initiated in Grand Haven a Spanish-speaking line at our 172nd (Avenue) factory. Now we’re able to offer Spanish speakers who maybe aren’t strong in English an opportunity to come work at Shape. It’s an opportunity for them to develop because we want to develop our people and give them career development opportunities. Then for the company, it’s an opportunity to really welcome a new segment of the labor pool here in West Michigan that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to tap.
What are your thoughts on the state’s incentives-based strategy for the electric vehicle industry?
It goes back to my philosophy around disruptive change. The state also has a tremendous opportunity right now given the state of this industry and our leadership position in this industry. We have a tremendous opportunity to become a high-tech state and lead the world in this battery electric transition, just like the companies do. I think the way you do that is you have to think about the competitive environment and talent pools. I don’t think the solution is in big incentives.
For example, when we look for a new plant footprint, wherever it is in the world, our first criteria is access to skilled labor and availability of the labor pool. It’s not government tax incentives. I would like to see the state focus those resources on how we develop and grow a world-class talent pool. That starts all the way back in K-12, and that’s where I think we should be focusing. Companies need the raw material ingredients of great labor. Well, that great labor starts with the performance of our K-12 schools.
Shape is headquartered in Ottawa County, which recently underwent a major political shift with the slate of Ottawa Impact candidates. One of their first moves was to eliminate the county’s diversity, equity and inclusion department, which was funded by major employers, including Shape. Does this affect your ability to attract talent? Are you concerned about any long-term effects?
I’m not sure what Ottawa Impact means long term, but what I can speak to is DEI. (Shape) formed what we call an inclusion advisory board, which has outside directors on the board. We want inclusion at our company. This board talks about strategies, ideas and ways for us to become a more inclusive company. Our belief is that it is the right way to operate our business.
As it relates to Ottawa Impact here, our company is a reflection of the community in which we live and work. So if our community isn’t supporting DEI, it will be more difficult for the businesses to be supporting DEI. There are things we can do within the walls of Shape, but we believe that it should be a business- and community-led effort, and it’s important. And based on what happened down there (at the Ottawa County board), that sends the wrong message.