The U.S. and European automobile industry is in the midst of a critical period in its history. Margins continue to decrease; legacy costs, such as debt service, pensions and healthcare, remain an ongoing burden. Volatility in the commodities markets is driving costs to new heights. Competition has increased, not only from long-standing Asian manufacturers, like Toyota and Honda, but also from new market entrants, such as Tata and Chery. At the same time, however, there is extraordinary opportunity: research and development efforts in alternative fuels and high-performance materials are reaching a critical mass, while the globalization of markets and of the supply chain offers a wider range of possibilities for sourcing and sales.
Taking advantage of these opportunities and overcoming these challenges requires a healthy relationship between manufacturers and suppliers. This relationship is where innovation is implemented, quality levels are determined and costs are controlled. Furthermore, many of the industry’s opportunities can only be exploited if manufacturers and suppliers work in concert, making “big bet” investments in research, infrastructure and markets, and sharing advanced technology. However, the manufacturer-supplier relationship is beset by a great deal of friction, the result of decades of mistrust between historically unequal partners. That friction has increased in recent years in the face of the lower margins and greater market pressure; indeed, some manufacturers that were once praised by suppliers for even-handedness have recently adopted a notably more aggressive approach.
In order to successfully seize the opportunities before them, manufacturers and suppliers will have to make a conscious effort to instill a new culture and adopt new behaviors in their interactions with each other.
The traditional adversarial approach no longer works at a time when each side must commit its best people, capital and technology to succeed. To move ahead, the forward-thinking executives in place must be supplemented with a new generation of leaders who combine the requisite technical mastery with the ability to implement cultural change—and the determination to “stay the course” in the face of adversity. Both manufacturers and suppliers need to hire executives with different competencies and backgrounds than they currently do, and support those executives with effective incentives and professional development for their teams.
MethodologyTo determine the elements of a successful manufacturer-supplier relationship and the competencies needed by leaders working toward or sustaining such a relationship, the Automotive Practice of Russell Reynolds Associates partnered with the Automotive, Transportation and Industrials Practices of Booz & Company to conduct 43 in-person surveys of senior executives at nine major manufacturers and 19 major suppliers in the United States and Europe, focusing on their global operations and practices. These interviews covered the nature of the relationship between their firm and their supplier vendors or manufacturer customers, how those relationships have changed over time, where the relationships worked and where there was room for improvement. An analysis of those interviews, conducted with Cambria Consulting, resulted in a clear identification of the characteristics of high-performing relationships, the environment necessary to sustain those partnerships, and the qualities needed in executives charged with implementing high-performing partner relationships.
A Spectrum Of ApproachesMuch of the discussion regarding the manufacturer-supplier relationship in recent years has been framed in terms of two contrasting models.1 The first is the price-based sourcing relationship which has traditionally dominated in the United States. Here, the manufacturers call for competitive bids on the desired goods, fighting to get the lowest prices for components and materials that meet the specifications they set. Suppliers, in turn, look to meet exactly those requirements at the highest prices they can command—and make up what they give up in price concessions by charging aggressively for design changes. There is little motivation for either side to collaborate or share knowledge.
In contrast, the second model—relationship-based sourcing—is centered on collaboration. This model is the favored approach in Asia, where it integrates naturally with lean manufacturing and just-in-time supply chain management. Manufacturers and suppliers work together to develop ways to provide components and materials more inexpensively and share knowledge to foster innovation. The supplier receives a price that reflects a profit margin both sides agree to, as well as incentives for product improvement and further cost reduction. While the supplier has less autonomy over its bottom line, it enjoys a steadier and more secure business partnership.
The survey found that, generically speaking, most companies would prefer to choose the relationship-based model over the price-based approach, apparently drawn to the potential value of close, interwoven—and sometimes interlocked—relationships with their suppliers. At the same time, they acknowledge that the relationship-based model is difficult to implement and often ends up a wish-list item that recedes from possibility, even as the company may transform itself in other ways, such as by improving corporate governance and manufacturing efficiency.
The tendency to regard relationship-based sourcing as the superior model primarily comes from the success of Toyota and Honda, as well as a number of European manufacturers, in developing and perfecting it. But it must be remembered that Asian manufacturers often have a significant ownership stake in their suppliers, making direct comparisons difficult. Further, the relationship-based sourcing model has yet to be tested in an extended downturn. In fact, in the current competitive environment, some automakers traditionally identified with the relationship-based sourcing model have begun to implement profit improvement targets usually seen in price-based sourcing.
To a certain extent, a company’s choice of the relationship model depends upon its underlying company culture and how it perceives itself in the marketplace. Correctly or not, a company whose financial back is to the wall may not see itself as having the “luxury” of adopting a more collaborative approach. Taking a price-based approach may in fact be a rational choice, if one is in a position of strength or dealing in commodity goods. Such a relationship, however, may not be optimal in the long run or even sustainable, especially if fortunes shift.
In the real world, manufacturer-supplier relationships are more fluid and less rigidly defined than they once were—or, perhaps, than the constraints of a survey can define them. Indeed, companies in the automotive industry actually have a few choices now. They can navigate the difficult operational waters to develop a relationship-based supplier model, or they can be more disciplined in making a transaction-based supplier model work. Or, they can opt for a middle ground which acknowledges that even collaborative relationships may become more adversarial (when focused, for example, on commodity goods), and that pockets of collaboration can emerge even between manufacturers and suppliers who take a zero-sum approach.
This emerging middle path, known as “coopetition,” involves companies moving deliberately between competition, collaboration and its various hybrids as the situation demands but always with transparency and an eye on protecting the long-term relationship.
Coopetition has its virtues, to be sure, especially when it is well managed. But in some companies, this middle path reflects muddled thinking in which parts of the organization try to move towards a relationship-based model and other parts hold to the transactional option, with the result being nothing but inconsistency.
Survey FindingsThe survey confirmed that a wide range of approaches are being used, from the highly collaborative, to the traditionally price driven, to the middle ground of coopetition. While many manufacturers and suppliers have adopted the language of relationship-based sourcing, it is not always clear if such language is matched by the structural and organizational changes and the fundamental shifts in thinking and attitude that are necessary, either because change initiatives were undertaken but simply could not displace the embedded culture, or because a market downturn caused a revision to well-ingrained behaviors.
The study also found that, overall, European manufacturers are more likely to use the collaborative model than their U.S. counterparts. Sometimes this difference can be seen even when comparing the European and American operations of the same company. Part of the reason is that in Europe, different cultures and different nationalities among OEMs and suppliers have had to cooperate for so long—for example, they speak different languages during negotiations—that a collaborative model is more natural. In addition, there is often a much higher level of internal cross-functional communication found in European operations.
With European engineering and purchasing departments working side by side through much of the sourcing process, individual agendas are set aside more readily, and targets can be more easily agreed upon. U.S.-based manufacturers, on the other hand, tend to be more siloed in their operations.
While the purchasing department might work with suppliers to identify possibilities for cost reduction, implementation is left to engineering which is not as fully invested in the process because it has not been as involved along the way.
The differences in the U.S. and European approaches are also reflected in hiring philosophies. When hiring purchasing managers, U.S. automakers have traditionally emphasized business competencies. European manufacturers, on the other hand, often place just as much weight on having a solid technical background, which is an essential ingredient in building a collaborative relationship around products defined by technical specifications and performance measurements. Furthermore, U.S. manufacturers have lost leverage with their suppliers in recent years, by outsourcing to them not only the manufacturing of components but the integration of complete systems. Europe also has the benefit of having fewer product lines and a less diverse market, as well as having grappled with fundamental issues for a longer period, due to the downturn that started there in 2002.
The most important observation is the undercurrent of dissatisfaction on both sides with the current state of affairs and a strong desire for change that transcends whatever variations there are between individual manufacturers and suppliers.
Even firms comfortable with the price-based approach are aware that a transaction mindset is not optimal for doing business. As one of our respondents summarized, “We can work within any model as long as there is trust, transparency, predictability and consistency in the relationship.”
Characteristics Of High-Performing RelationshipsSurvey respondents identified the elements they prized the most and the areas needing improvement in their manufacturer-supplier relationships. From these responses, we identified eight relationship best practices that apply no matter which model is used.
Commitment from the top. Establishing and maintaining a high-performing relationship between manufacturers and suppliers requires commitment from the CEO and senior management to trust and transparency, and ensuring that the purchasing and supply leaders have the authority, people and resources to perform as required. The CEO must communicate by word and action that behaviors impeding a high-performing relationship with business partners will not be tolerated and that the leaders charged with implementing and managing those relationships have the CEO’s support. This will help ensure that necessary changes take hold and the organization behaves consistently over time, which is essential for building strong partnerships.
Creating alignment. Partners share information more readily with manufacturers when they perceive their interests to be aligned by the growth opportunity that can come from such an exchange.
Recognizing the value of a good relationship. Good relationships have a real impact on the bottom line and are treated and cared for like the assets that they are; the cost and effort of maintaining them is seen as an investment rather than an expense.
Clarity of purpose. Understand what can and cannot be accomplished in the relationship. Manufacturers cannot look to suppliers to erase their legacy costs; suppliers cannot expect to push down the legacy costs as they are confronted with increasing commodity prices. Establish what an optimal relationship looks like, identify the benefits, and work toward that goal.
Understanding the other side’s business. The innovation that comes from true knowledge sharing cannot take place unless each team has the technical expertise to roll up their sleeves and work alongside the other.
Peer-to-peer understanding needs to extend up the hierarchy to key decision makers, who need to grasp each other’s priorities and goals, in addition to the subject-matter issues involved.
Suppliers noted that they had stronger relationships with manufacturers that heavily involved their engineering departments in purchasing decisions.
Streamlining decision making. Each side must have one accessible person who is in charge of the relationship both externally (to maximize responsiveness) and internally (to foster cross-functional communication between departments and teams). This will also allow the rapid flow of communication necessary for innovation.
Getting beyond the transactional. Manufacturers might be surprised to learn that suppliers are eager to work with them to tackle complex problems, from reducing supply chain costs to achieving sustained excellence in areas that reinforce the brand message. Even price-based relationships contain considerable knowledge resources that go untapped. Each side should challenge the other to think beyond conventional solutions and methods and should work together enterprise to enterprise to break down siloed thinking.
Codifying the relationship. Establish a knowledge management system and bilateral action plan that ensure the relationship survives beyond the involvement of current participants. This should include agreed-upon key performance indicators for assessing the state of the relationship, areas for improvement, and protocols to maintain open communication and transparency between both parties. Setting priorities will also encourage thinking with a long-term horizon and helping to keep parties from reverting to old behaviors when times get tough.
Prerequisites For Positive ChangeFor companies looking to increase the performance of their manufacturer-supplier relationships, outlining the best practices of those relationships is only the first step. Forward-thinking executives who wish to implement these practices must also create an environment that allows for such relationships to be established and sustained.
The first task is to overcome decades of mistrust between manufacturers and suppliers, an “us versus them” mindset and a short-term mentality focused on making this quarter’s cost-reduction (or sales) goals.
Under those conditions, there is little inducement for suppliers to share information about real costs or to spare high redesign charges. Nor can they be expected to collaborate on innovation, share technology or make a substantial capital investment in facilities or research and development, if they know they could lose the account to a rival who underbids them by a slight margin. The lack of communication and shared knowledge, in turn, leads to a highly inefficient cycle of specifications and requirement changes that undermine the quality and innovation of the final product.
This inertia is reinforced by the automobile industry’s high level of geographic concentration—few industries are as densely clustered in just a few cities around the world—and “ingrown” tendencies: Many automobile executives are the second (and sometimes third) generation of their families to work in the industry. Furthermore, with the exception of certain functions, such as finance and human resources, a high percentage of automotive executives have spent their entire careers in the industry. As a result, there is less of the continual influx of new people and new ideas enjoyed by other sectors. There is less comfort with adopting new business models and more of a reliance on making incremental improvements in existing approaches.
None of this history presents an insurmountable obstacle to change. But, it does place extra importance on the competencies of those chosen to effect the transition, who must act not only as functional leaders but also as change agents. In that latter role, both manufacturing and supply executives must be able to create agile learning organizations. Such groups encourage new thinking—often drawing from non-traditional or outside sources—and do not shy away from disruptive approaches. Always testing assumptions and unafraid to admit errors, they use their learning to continually revise their business practices. Doing so requires a culture of trust that begins within the organization and extends outward to other organizations with which they do business; transparency and consistency are defining principles. Finally, they overcome the impulse to a transaction mindset and an “us versus them” worldview and instead establish true business partnerships that are focused on a long-term horizon. A solid working relationship is valued as the asset it is and never sacrificed for short-term gain.
Implementing Positive ChangeHaving created an environment in which change can take place, an executive must then successfully drive that change.
Driving change requires a sustained, tough-minded sense of mission that will overcome inertia and naysayers. The executive must take the commitment of the board and the CEO and translate it into a sense of urgency down the ranks of the team.
Skeptics must be engaged in meaningful dialogue—converted to the new paradigm through persuasion and instilled with a sense of compliance. If that fails, replace them.
The leadership must also develop and leverage a network of internal and external relationships that provide the social capital and resources to support new initiatives, and to act as a sounding board for new ideas. Such a network is established by evincing a genuine understanding of others and by delivering on commitments over a long period of time. The resulting network provides the channels through which the executive can institutionalize change.
Essential Executive CompetenciesEstablishing high-performance relationships between manufacturers and suppliers requires leaders who can create and maintain an environment that transcends the regressive pull of a complicated history and then drive the necessary change within that new environment. Our research and experience suggest that a specific set of competencies is required to do so. While no single person is likely to possess all of the characteristics, the following is a collective list of competencies that must exist within the relevant senior leadership teams. The correlation between needed competencies and the prerequisites for success is outlined in Table 1.
Knowledge and ExperienceBusiness Acumen: Having a thorough grasp of details, key business drivers and where the most value can be obtained.
- In-depth understanding of the other party’s strategy and how the other party makes money;
- Understanding the global landscape of other suppliers, cost factors, currencies, etc.;
- Awareness of the risks regarding cost, availability, alternative sourcing versus sole sourcing opportunities, etc.; and
- Being in touch with emerging technology and regulatory trends and the impact on the supplier business and the manufacturer relationship.
- Caught off guard by competitive, market, and/or economic developments that affect the business.
StrategyVision: The ability to create a compelling view of the future and the breakthrough opportunities that may arise from that perspective. Indicators:
- Seeing the long-term benefits of a more collaborative business relationship;
- Able to make game-changing “bold moves”;
- Persuasively articulating the vision and its benefits to other stakeholders; and
- Holding to a long-term, well-articulated view of how the ideal business relationship would work and the economic benefits that can accrue from it.
- Focusing on short-term advantage rather than striving for longer-term gain; and
- Unwillingness to embrace a broader view or sacrifice the short term.
- Willing to suspend preconceived notions about how business can or should be conducted;
- Considering different ideas (even those from the “opposing party”);
- Openness to suggestions for improving value to price; and
- Seeking first-hand knowledge of the other party’s operations through field visits.
- Unwillingness to consider approaches that are different from those that have achieved “success” in the past; and
- Equating the validity of ideas with experience in the industry.
- Setting challenging goals for mutually beneficial dealings;
- Relentlessly focused on efficiencies and costs;
- Stating clear goals and expectations up front in discussions; and
- Being firm but fair in driving performance expectations, with knowledge of how far the other party can be pushed.
- Putting unreasonable demands on the other party; and
- Using threats to get results, pushing others to the breaking point.
- Seeking to demolish the organizational obstacles to changing the nature of the business relationship;
- Taking the long view and not becoming disappointed by the slowness of progress or setbacks; and
- Holding unwaveringly to the vision of the ideal business relationship.
- Exhibiting a “cannot be done, so why bother” mindset;
- Viewing legacy obstacles as insurmountable;
- Becoming frustrated with major stumbling blocks and reverting to old behaviors in response; and
- Harboring negative expectations that meaningful progress in the relationship can be made.
- Looking for and quickly seizing new business opportunities;
- Adeptness at scoping out other sources of supply, leverage points, cost-saving opportunities, etc.;
- Seeking creative “win-win” solutions to seemingly intractable problems or obstacles; and
- Continually scanning the environment for opportunities for leverage.
- Being risk averse, preferring “tried and true” approaches; and
- Unwillingness to try approaches that go beyond one’s comfort zone.
- Viewing the whole process of how all the pieces fit together, interact and affect one another;
- Envisioning ways to streamline processes and make the paths clear; and
- Being able to lay out a structured, clear, transparent path and approach.
- Addressing issues one at a time and in isolation;
- Focusing on point solutions (e.g., price) without considering the consequences for other parts of the larger process; and
- Preferring conceptual over concrete approaches to working out solutions to problems.
Relationships and InfluenceInterpersonal Acumen: Understanding people and taking their feelings and perceptions into account when making decisions. Indicators:
- Acknowledging and respecting the reasons others act as they do;
- Understanding the concerns and fears of the other party to the business relationship;
- Treating others with respect despite disagreement;
- Able to appreciate the other person’s perspectives;
- Understanding the motives and concerns of one’s customers or counterparts; and
- Sizing up “who is best at doing what” on one’s own team and those of the business partners.
- Lacking appreciation of or not understanding why business partners react to their tactics as they do; and
- Viewing others’ concerns, past actions, historical attitudes or behaviors as illegitimate or unreasonable.
- Working with different business partners who have different business models and approaches (e.g., predictable/unpredictable; legalistic/collaborative, etc.); and
- Adeptness at negotiating in response to changing circumstances.
- Unwilling or unable to modify tactics as situation requirements change;
- Sticking to a preferred style or method of operating when dealing with people using different styles or methods; and
- Resistant to compromise to achieve a greater mutual result.
- Forthcoming about business model and strategy;
- Willing to open the books to reveal the basis of requirements and cost objectives;
- Open and willing to trust others at their word until proven otherwise; and
- Willing to “share the toolbox.”
- Harbors hidden agendas with business partners;
- Shades the truth or reveals only that which favors one’s own argument; and
- Declines to offer the reasoning behind positions or requirements.
- Demonstrating consistency in behavior;
- Being true to one’s word and meeting verbal commitments as if they were written agreements;
- Holding to the highest ethical standards in dealings with others;
- Acknowledging and respecting intellectual property boundaries; and
- Ensuring rapid follow-through on promises and commitments.
- Saying one thing and doing another;
- Acting out of expediency rather than what is best for the business relationship;
- Frequently changing the rules of engagement; and
- Exploiting others’ weaknesses to gain the advantage
The Challenges AheadOur survey of automotive manufacturers and suppliers reveals both opportunities and challenges for an industry in significant need of new thinking. Both sides are dissatisfied with the status quo. The preconditions and best practices that characterize high-performing relationships are clear and achievable, and it is possible to identify the qualities needed in executive leadership on both sides to achieve that change.
If the path is clear, the question then becomes one of charting the course from one point to another. Several steps present themselves:
Each of these steps will benefit from executives who bring perspectives from outside the automotive industry, or at least from the other side of the manufacturer-supplier divide. The board of directors can be a role model in this regard, since good corporate governance practices already encourage assembling a board comprised of independent directors with a wide set of backgrounds and strategically critical skills. For senior management positions, search committees should consider widening the talent pool to include executives from other manufacturing industries and then, more broadly, from mature, capital-intensive, process-oriented sectors whose executives face many of the same challenges seen in the automotive industry.