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Visteon Automotive Systems

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Visteon: Speed, Experience, Vision

We talk with Craig Muhlhauser, a man who recognizes that talent, drive and enthusiasm play big roles in how well companies do. "To be the best," he says, "we have to have the best people. The companies with the best people will be the winners." And they're planning to win at Visteon.

Craig H. Muhlhauser has an opportunity that doesn't come along too often in a person's career. In July 1997, Muhlhauser joined Ford Motor Co. as the director of Global Marketing, Sales and Service, Automotive Products Operation. In September 1997, the Automotive Products Operation underwent a transformation into an new entity, Visteon Automotive Systems. Muhlhauser was named Visteon vice president of Global Marketing, Sales and Service. Then, just over a year later, in January 1999, he became president of Visteon.

This makes him head of what is measurably the world's second largest automotive supply company.

Visteon consists of 82,000 people who are located in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. There are 82 manufacturing facilities. Including joint venture facilities, there are 50 technical centers and sales offices. Within the firm there are Chassis Systems and Climate Control Systems. Exterior Systems and Electronic Systems. Glass Systems and Interior Systems. And Powertrain Control Systems.

In 1998, sales were $17.8 billion.

Clearly, given the breadth of these operations, Muhlhauser has a great challenge—or make that "opportunity."

Getting Fast. One of the fundamentals of Visteon is speed.

Among the Visteon Values is: "Be first to implement."

One of the Visteon Leadership Behaviors is: "Lead with vision, clarity, focus, and a bias for action" (emphasis added).

And in the Visteon Team Behaviors: "Have a sense of urgency."

Given the magnitude of the firm, the question that arises is, simply: How can Visteon go fast?

Muhlhauser says they're doing three things:

1. Organizing in small units. The business units each have a clear focus and direction. Each has a core expertise. So while the overall company is big, the various parts of the company are small enough to be fast.

2. Getting the word out. Muhlhauser says they've initiated a "massive" communication and education program to let all of the 82,000 people know what the company's vision and purpose are—and speed is certainly a part of it.

3. "Creating a sense of urgency." Visteon is part of Ford. And Ford is Visteon's biggest customer. Ford has been doing quite well the last few years. Ergo, Visteon has been doing well. But Muhlhauser says that Visteon people must understand that "We have to go out and earn the business," that they must be competitive with outside vendors.

Experience Counts. In many ways, Visteon is positioned as a new company, a new competitor. Even though the ownership by Ford is there, it would not be the least bit surprising if there was a Visteon IPO in the cards.

Muhlhauser says, "We're thinking like a company that has an independent life and control of its own destiny." He adds, "I tell people we can make this what we want it to be."

Muhlhauser doesn't underestimate the vast experience that many of the people within Visteon have, their long tenure within the Ford organization. But he thinks it is important for them to have new experiences. "We have to get people out of their comfort zone," he says, explaining that one problem that can arise from doing the same thing for a long time is that blind spots can form. "The traditional view is that after 25 years someone becomes a functional expert. But it could be that their experience is just 25 years deep," he says, describing a narrow shaft with his hands.

"We need to leverage a breadth of experience. To me," he explains, "it's all about training and development, about leaders being coaches and teachers."

Muhlhauser is Socratic in his approach. He says that he sometimes meets people who tell him that they appreciate the Visteon vision, but they just don't know how to change: they've been doing what they're doing for a long time, it seems to be working well, and they just don't figure how they can change. He doesn't tell them what to do: "I start asking questions." He asks the people about things that are important and relevant, but which aren't necessarily considered by people throughout the organization, like: Who are the competitors? How big is their market share compared with ours? What about our customers? What about the consumers: Do we know what they want?

"By changing the questions"—that is, not asking about things like shipments and sales figures but about competitors and consumers—"we are forcing people to think differently. And then they'll act differently," Muhlhauser says.

Craig H. Muhlhauser
Muhlhauser: "One challenge is to allow people to see that this is an industry that recognizes that it needs to change--and change dramatically from its current paradigm.

Competency & Courage. Of course, for some industry veterans this may be difficult to accept. They've been used to a culture that is much older than that of Visteon, where the rules were in place for so long that they seem to be carved on stone tablets. How does Muhlhauser and his team go about changing the attitudes of these people? "Massive communication and training. Active and involved leadership," he responds. He explains that what they are working to achieve at Visteon is an environment where people have both the competency and the courage to make decisions (either alone isn't sufficient). He wants people to understand that "risk" means that sometimes things don't turn out as expected. "Once a decision is made, we are 100% behind it," Muhlhauser says. Should the decision be an incorrect or inappropriate one, then they'll talk about what they've learned and what could have been done differently: "We never look to assign blame."

Muhlhauser says that he has been delighted at the amount of knowledge, talent and experience that they've been able to tap into.

Muhlhauser talks about creating an environment where there is a focus on the consumer, the purchaser of the vehicle, not just the OEM customer. This even goes to the issue of staffing: "The general diversity of the workforce should reflect the consumer base."

He points out that for many people, buying a car or truck is "an emotional experience," so he thinks Visteon people need to understand that point and to take it into account as they develop products that meet the customers' wants and needs. "We come at it with a global perspective and without the bias of being a car company," he says, explaining that they are looking at what they can provide to the consumers' environments as regards such things as safety, comfort, security, entertainment, communication, and performance.

Competence. Asked to list what he thinks Visteon's core competencies are, he replies,

1. Knowledge of the customer. 
2. Vehicle system engineering capability. 
3. Global delivery system. 
4. Ability to solve problems.

About the first, he says that most of the knowledge is about its biggest customer: Ford. Looking ahead, he notes, "What we need to do is to have knowledge of customers so that we can anticipate demands." The vehicle system engineering capability is reflected by the comprehensive suite of business units within the organization. About the global delivery system, he says that it is robust and responsive: "We don't shut the customer down." And of the problem solving, he notes, "We can react, analyze and solve problems effectively."

Which companies outside of automotive does Muhlhauser admire? From the standpoint of predictable, sustainable performance, he says that General Electric is the company he greatly admires (and he acknowledges that he is an ex-GE guy, having worked from 1975 to 1990 at GE Aircraft Engine Systems, Industrial & Power Systems).

Lucent Technologies makes his list as a company that had originally been part of a larger corporation—AT&T—and yet has managed to attain greater market capitalization than its parent.

Finally, there's Dell Computer. He cites the energy and vision that took an idea and a $1,000 investment and turned it into a major player in the computer industry.

Some people think that other industries have more promise than automotive. Muhlhauser disagrees: "I come from aerospace and I love it. But I can't conceive of an industry that has more opportunity than automotive."