DETROIT—The 43-year professional history of Tim Leuliette mirrors the industry in which he ascended the ranks. From product shifts to the merger boom of the late 1990s to post-recession restructuring and to the entrance of private equity, Leuliette experienced it all.
He entered the workforce at a time when the U.S. industry faced growing competition from Japanese automakers, who, at the time, made vehicles more reliable and less expensive than their domestic counterparts.
At Ford Motor Co., Leuliette pitched new products to then-CEO Lee Iacocca and Chairman Henry Ford II. The sun had set on several popular Ford models, and the Ranchero's and Pinto's days were numbered.
After Ford, Leuliette's focus changed from product planning to deal making, helping arrange Renault's financial, albeit short, rescue of American Motors Corp.
After a brief reprieve from manufacturing in the late 1990s at Penske Corp., he led the creation of Metaldyne Corp. in 2000 through the acquisition of MascoTech by Heartland Industrial Partners, capping a boom in auto mergers and acquisitions during the previous five years.
Leuliette led the sale of Metaldyne to Japanese supplier Asahi Tec Corp. in 2007, ahead of Metaldyne's bankruptcy in 2009.
The Great Recession would claim dozens of auto companies, including Dura Automotive Systems. Leuliette was recruited by Dura's acquirer out of bankruptcy, private equity firm Patriarch Partners, in 2008 to turn the company around.
Leuliette then ended up on the board of one of the last remaining struggling major suppliers, Visteon Corp., the one-time Ford parts spinoff company.
There, he worked his way from the board to CEO and led yet another financial and structural turnaround, leading to a smaller and more profitable Visteon. Leuliette, now 65, retired in June. He spoke with Crain's Detroit Business reporter Dustin Walsh about his career. Crain's is an affiliate of Rubber & Plastics News.
You've had a long career, but tell me about your start at Ford in 1972.
In many respects, Ford was graduate school. I found myself on the product planning group early on. That was where the product decisions were made. I had to stand in front of (Lee) Iacocca and make five-minute presentations, provide market objectives, etc., for new products. It forced me, just getting out of college, to take a skill set from schooling to real world business in rapid fashion. It was a hell of an education, and the days were long. But I got to pitch ideas to Iacocca and Henry Ford II at 23.
American Motors Corp. was your first taste in restructuring, correct?
AMC was definitely my start going into struggling situations. But I had the opportunity for a leadership role and to take some of my team from Ford with me. I felt a need to do this. There, I got to help negotiate the deal with Renault and find a way to fund the Cherokee as part of being in charge of product planning. AMC laid the seeds for my interest in international deals and expertise.
From AMC, you jumped from one struggling organization to the next for the better part of 15 years?
I like business and doing it on a global scale and I don't fear change. Bendix needed help getting acquired. When Allied Signal bought us, that led to running bigger things, but we ran out of money. We were bought by Siemens and, honestly, I was expecting to be laid off. But they offered me a job and I became the only corporate officer not in Germany. But, ITT presented a new challenge. They were losing money, but they had a good market for ABS (anti-lock brake systems). We were able to build the company up after some changes. Hell, I tried to buy it in a leveraged buyout with some bankers in New York. The company wasn't ready for that. So I needed to move on.
You ended up working with Roger Penske. That's a switch from your earlier experience.
Well, I was contacted to run Federal-Mogul, but Roger was a friend of mine and I asked him to be a reference. He said he would, but only if I had dinner with him. He wanted me to work for him, and being the right hand of Roger Penske trumps all other job offers. He's one of the most honest, sincere and innovative leaders this industry has ever had.
I was still in my 40s and I always felt like I'd end up a CEO, but I knew I could learn a great deal from Roger. At Penske, I led several deals, which served as my entry into private equity. PE is a greater way to fund and incubate change in an organization than what I had previously been doing.
This leads to your founding of Metaldyne with PE firm Heartland Industrial Partners. It was eventually bought by Asahi. Then you went to Dura. Getting companies out of trouble became your theme, yes?
We built companies and returned money to our shareholders. When the Japanese bought us, I was 57, and wanted to retire. That lasted about six weeks, then I got a call about Dura. It had just emerged from bankruptcy but was on the verge of going back in. We kept it out and got it sold. I thought then I could retire. That lasted about another six weeks where I founded my own investment firm (eventually merged with Finnea Group). Then, Visteon called.
The situation at Visteon seemed to be a culmination of all of your experiences. How did you accomplish what previous CEOs could not?
Visteon had a complicated product line and was an overstaffed company with not a lot of focus. I was there to clean up the business. That's my skillset. The company lived in denial. There are economic realities that any company must attain to be successful.
When you don't understand those, managers always say, “Let's get to one more quarter” or “Let's get through one more year.” Cleanup is painful and it involves selling off assets and laying people off. Nobody likes to do that, but it has to be done to be competitive or face being eaten alive.
But that's what I do. No company has ever called me and said “This company is working like a Swiss watch. Want a job?” I had an enjoyable career, but I had to make some tough decisions. Rightsizing Visteon had to be done for it to be successful. I'm proud of what I accomplished there.
Companies, and CEOs, get far more scrutiny from shareholders now. How did you handle that and what does this mean for the industry?
Shareholders own the company and play an important role. I don't believe it's negative what's been happening. It's the reality of business today.
You can't sit with your management team and say “shareholders aren't going to like this.” That won't fly. When I came in as CEO of Visteon, major shareholders wanted the company liquidated and sold by Christmas. But, really, they wanted $50 per share. I told them we could get them $50 per share without liquidating the company. That's a lot of pressure. But, as a CEO, if you can't handle it, go be a banker or a candlestick maker. We get compensated very, very well to make money for those shareholders. Visteon was not my first rodeo.
What's Visteon's future?
The next strategy is on making plays for more software in three-year, five-year and seven-year strategies. The CEO who makes those bets should be there to live with those bets, so I was happy to hand it off in better shape. Visteon is now smaller and more agile. It's positioned to become of one of the premier players in the age of electronics. Employees don't have to worry whether they'll have a job tomorrow. This is not your father's Visteon, and I'm pleased where it's at and its future.
What about your future?
Roger (Penske) once told me to cut back to 70 hours a week when I turn 70. So, maybe I'll do that. I have no internal desire anymore to prove anything. But, if I could be a value add to another company, I'd consider it. I've been blessed beyond belief. I can only hope what I've done can help the CEOs who are around today. This town and this industry has a thousand stories like mine.
What advice would you give to new executives in automotive?
Work hard. That's the first thing. Face reality. Don't work for a company that makes mechanical parts in an electronic world.
Engage the company and your employees. If you're in it for yourself, people smell that out very quickly. The company has to do well for you to do well. Understand that.
Change is important and be prepared. Luck has been a large part of my life, as it is for many people, but sometimes go make your own luck and be prepared for when it's there.