In this latest installment of our AMN Executive Interview series, AMN Editor Amy Antenora sits down for an in-depth discussion with Federal-Mogul Motorparts CEO Dan Ninivaggi. In this candid interview conducted at the company’s Southfield, Michigan, headquarters, Ninivaggi shares his take on the past year for the company and his perspective on striving for excellence. He also talks about the recent Frost & Sullivan honors the company received.
AMN: It’s been a little over a year since you launched Garage Gurus. You’ve had a laser-like focus on it and really put a lot of effort into connecting with the technicians. The benefits for the technician are obvious. What are some of the benefits that Federal-Mogul Motorparts gets out of that relationship?
Ninivaggi: Our success has always been tied to the success of the repair shops. Service technicians really influence the purchase decision. The repair shop owners are obviously the heart of the industry we serve, and anything we can do to make them successful by definition will make us successful. So, we looked into the market, and we noticed less and less vocational training and more complex vehicles, mobile computers, etc. Clearly, there was a need for better training, and not just the centralized training, where you fly to a central location for two or three days once a year. We wanted to make it convenient, accessible and relevant, and also give technicians multiple ways to access it – including online, mobile vans or in one of the metropolitan training centers – in addition to the national training center. That was the purpose of it. I think it’s been very successful. We’ve trained thousands of technicians and people who work in shops. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. We can’t necessarily tie it to any tangible benefits, in terms of sales or profitability, but no question, we believe that better serving the technicians will ultimately be good for our business long-term.
AMN: Have you done any surveys to find out how this may be impacting technicians’ impression of the brands?
Ninivaggi: We do focus groups all the time on the brands, and we’re doing more and more of them. The technicians are in those focus groups. We haven’t tied it, to my knowledge, to Garage Gurus directly, but we have had focus groups with many ofthose same technicians. Again, the feedback on our brands has been very valuable and has informed our product and marketing strategies, but we look atGarage Gurus as almost a separate company. It’s a service initiative within Federal-Mogul Motorparts that has to be credible and objective and independent. We don’t use it for sales and marketing. We use it for its stated purpose, which is to better serve technicians, give them training and make their jobs easier.
AMN: We hear all the time that they don’t want to get into a room thinking they’re being trained and it’s a sales pitch.
Ninivaggi: Yes, it’s a separate team. That was by design. They’re not sales people who are conducting the training or doing the drive-alongs.
Ultimately, we think it could serve as an industry-wide platform. We’re happy for other vendors to piggyback on it, to use our training centers. We do it all in collaboration with our customers. We supplement their own training activities. It’s not intended to be a standalone Federal-Mogul Motorparts initiative. We kick started it by opening the training centers, but we very much see this as an industry-wide initiative that’s very important. And in lots of product categories that we’re not in, we want to use what we built to actually help those product categories as well.
AMN: Have you had any participation from other suppliers?
Ninivaggi: We’ve had some, mostly on the customer side and on the service chain side. We’ve had service chains that have booked the calendar to do their own training with us. We invite our key customers and other suppliers to work with us on it.
AMN: You mentioned the fact that you’re making the training accessible in a variety of formats. Have you seen any trends in terms of preferences? We frequently hear shop owners say it’s really hard to make time to leave the shop. Do they prefer one outlet over another?
Ninivaggi: Yes, the online and the mobile vans, by far. When we shrunk the timing of the classes to four hours and then added more evening courses, we saw an uptick. And it’s a seasonal thing as well. We do better in the winter.
The ASE certification classes have probably been our best addition because technicians are really looking for some help when they have to go back in and recertify to get to that next level. That – and our Spanish language classes sell out the minute we post them. There’s a big need for that.
So, no surprise, the more convenient you make it, the more it’s utilized.
AMN: How does the distribution segment fit into the Garage Gurus program? Is there a place for them?
Ninivaggi: Absolutely. All of our initiatives in the field through Garage Gurus and through the other “Tech First” initiatives are done with our channel partners. Rarely, if ever, do we go out and launch something solely on our own, because we don’t sell products to repair shops or to consumers. Everything has to be done in complete alignment with channel partners, and different channel partners utilize it differently. We have had numerous partners who have embraced it and are using the training centers, the mobile vans, and it’s helped their business. Others have their own programs. We are always looking for ways to supplement what they do, not replace what they do. So, we work that out customer by customer.
AMN: What is your go-to-market strategy for the Federal-Mogul Motorparts business as a whole, over the next two or three years?
Ninivaggi: There are a few elements to that. Our business is becoming more and more about services and solutions, not just providing a great part. We don’t see our job as solely turning over a great part with a great brand. We have to get it tothe right place at the right time at a competitive price. We’ve got to help our customers sell to their customers. We’ve got to help repair shops understand the brand value, the products we’re selling, and the differentiation we’re trying to provide. I would say step one is making sure that we’re looking at it end to end, not just as a parts manufacturer.
Secondly, the industry is driven by inventory availability. The more availability you have, the higher likelihood you’ll get a sale. Pretty simple concept. We have to help our channel partners, and this plays into point No. 1: get better inventory availability at a lower cost. That means investing in supply-chain capabilities, in modern IT systems and information technology generally, and having better market intelligence – things that will improve availability without increasing cost.
The third thing is we’ve got to support our brands and the premium segment. The market has become more tiered in most product categories. You have to be able to be competitive in each tier. In addition to being one of the – if not the – largest multi-brand aftermarket suppliers in North America, we’re also one of the largest private label suppliers. We look it at on a category basis, not on a tier basis. We’re trying to go to our customers with strategies to manage their categories efficiently, and that means clearly differentiating and providing innovation on the premium segment but also providing high-quality private label offerings with good technology and good performance.
I would say the three areas are the main areas I would focus on. The field support and what we have broadly called the “Tech First” initiatives are really designed to execute all that, but if we do the first three categories well, then our customers, I think, are very happy, and we should be successful.
AMN: You mentioned supply chain. I understand that that’s an area that you’re very passionate about. There are a lot of exciting things happening with technology. Can you update us on some of the innovations you’ve put in place in the past year and what efficiencies you’re seeing within your supply chain?
Ninivaggi: A big part of it is really just fundamentals. It’s really not inventing anything new, but rather making sure we have the right physical footprint in the right locations to have quick turnaround times and great service capability. Launching the East Coast and West Coast DCs, we realized we were, frankly, just too remote from two major markets, and we needed to put more inventory in those markets. Clearly, using technology to improve service levels that data, and plow it back into our supply chain, we should be better at forecasting demand. We should have better turnaround times and fill rate levels.
A big part of what we’re doing is using technology to essentially create a much higher service level standard. We’re also using technology in the distribution centers to speed the process, the execution of orders within the distribution center. We’ve added automated picking technology to our distribution center in York, Pennsylvania. We’re in the process of adding automation into our central distribution center in Tennessee. Ultimately, we’ll have it on the West Coast and in Europe as well. That automation allows us to process orders a lot faster.
AMN: Some of the warehouses in Europe are starting to use autonomous vehicles. Are you utilizing that at all?
Ninivaggi: We’re not, although autonomous vehicles have existed in industrial settings for a while. It’s one way to do it, but we’re picking a few pieces here, a few pieces there. It’s very labor-intensive. It’s very time-consuming. The picking technology we have in York can improve our turnaround times by 300 or 400 percent. It’s a meaningful difference and capability, and it allows us to process not only large orders but also small orders and medium-size orders much more efficiently. Ultimately, it saves us cost and improves service levels, and then we can pass the benefits on to our partners.
AMN: Let’s talk for a minute about branding? How you define a strong brand and how you feel the Federal-Mogul brands are perceived in the market place today?
Ninivaggi: A brand is a signal. It’s a signal of what’s in the box. The signal has to be clear, and it also has to be meaningful to the customer. The whole aftermarket industry in North America started on the premise that the independent aftermarket could supply OE-quality or better products. That’s how it established its position against the OES channel. For decades, the independent aftermarket has thrived based on the ability to compete with the OES channel and develop trust with consumers and technicians.
I think brands are very important, but they have to stand for something. You can’t just slap a brand on a product and expect that it’s going to immediately be meaningful to a customer. We have spent a lot of time making sure it does stand for something. So, innovation, differentiation and clearly communicating that differentiation to the customer, that reinforces the brand image and ultimately, strengthens the brand.
In the industry today, there’s proliferation of brands. Every product category has numerous brands, and the situation is pretty murky. I think there is a lot of confusion in the market. There are a lot of good quality products, but there is also poor quality. So, I think it’s more important now than ever that the industry stand behind strong brands and continue to prove that we can be OE-quality or better as an alternative to the OES channel. The proliferation of brands does concern me somewhat. There’s confusion in the market, and we need to do a better job of clearly explaining what the brands stand for.
AMN: Is there a particular product category that really excites you or one that really makes you nervous right now?
Ninivaggi: [laughs] The categories we’re in, for the most part, we’ve been in for a long period of time. I think we have more opportunity in the commercial vehicle segment. We have about $250 million in sales in commercial vehicle right now – friction, engine, and other categories. I think we have potential there, and we have a lot of efforts underway internally to be even bigger in the commercial vehicle segment.
On the light vehicle side, MOOG is the thing I think about the most and we spend the most time working on, in some ways because it really defines premium in North America. There is no second best, really, to MOOG. It’s been recognized in the industry as premium for a long time, but we definitely want to make sure people understand why and what that means. We’re spending a fair amount of time now doing independent testing of our products, of all of the competitive products, and trying to demonstrate clearly to consumers and technicians, in ways that are easy to understand and relevant, what makes MOOG premium.
How do we define premium? What does it stand for? It’s a complex category with a lot of SKUs. We compete with a lot of resellers that don’t make the product, and we think that there’s a big gap between MOOG and pretty much everything else in the market. We’re going to spend a lot of time and effort making sure that that’s well communicated.
AMN: What defines premium in terms of that “big gap” you refer to? What sets MOOG apart?
Ninivaggi: It’s OE quality or better. It lasts. The durability of MOOG is unparalleled. In the past, we’ve talked a lot about problem-solver applications. It’s easier to repair, and it’s a better part. It’s going to last the life of the vehicle. With a chassis failure, it could be a pretty serious situation. So in our view, you really can’t take shortcuts on chassis installments. We’ve been criticized in the past for over-engineering the product or maybe it’s better than it needs to be. We have a saying around here that when it comes to product quality, good is never good enough. That is really true with safety products.
For our branded product, we don’t cut corners. Yes, we may over-engineer it, but consumers and technicians will know they’re getting the highest quality part for that application. We think with things like chassis, if consumers or technicians are asked if they would rather put in a high-quality part or one that may fail in 12,000 or 24,000 or 36,000 miles, most people are going to choose the part that’s not going to fail. Again, if you get the information out to everybody, you show the differentiation, you show the quality advantages, we think the vast majority of people are going to choose the higher-quality part.
AMN: It certainly makes sense. We talked about product categories, but looking at the automotive aftermarket as a whole, what keeps you up at night, and what thrills you?
Ninivaggi: Cars are becoming more electronic. We’re in mostly mechanical parts. As cars become more and more electronic, as the electronic architecture becomes more complex, we, as an industry, have to have an aftermarket alternative for that, and I’m sure that’s part of our future as well because that’s where more and more of the value of the parts are going. We’re thinking through that strategy and how we evolve from mostly mechanical parts to the different vehicle architecture.
AMN: Congratulations on being named Frost & Sullivan’s “Company of the Year.” Tell us about what went into getting this accolade and what this means for the company?
Ninivaggi: I was actually surprised by it. We accomplished a lot last year, but it was a transitional year. We invested a lot. Our financial performance improved but not by a tremendous amount. Our whole supply chain was kind of in flux throughout the year. We were investing in technology, but many of our initiatives hadn’t launched until mid- to late-year. I looked at last year as a building year, and actually, even in 2016, we’re continuing to build. So, I was surprised we were recognized in 2015 for what we accomplished.
I think it’s only better going forward. For 2016, our performance across almost every level is better than it was in 2015. I like the recognition mainly for our team to understand that a very well-respected industry group is recognizing us for what we’re doing, but a lot of what we’re doing is still to come and there is still more hard work ahead of us.
AMN: Will you do anything special as a company to celebrate?
Ninivaggi: If you ask our employees, they will tell you we’re not complacent. We’re not satisfied with it. There’s a lot of room for improvement. In fact, we were talking earlier, and I said, you know, I like getting awards, sort of, but not really because it makes it seem like you’ve accomplished something, when in fact there’s so much improvement to go before we’re really a world-class company.
If you look at OE suppliers and the evolution that they took from the early
‘90s to around 2010, they went through a 20-year period where they all became way more sophisticated, in many cases more product lines, more global, more competitive on quality, service, delivery, everything. And, if you look at the best OEM suppliers today in the world, they are world-class companies, across any industry. That’s the standard.
We’re still a fairly fragmented bunch. Many of the companies in the aftermarket are still a single product line or maybe two product lines. I would say today we have good service levels, but we are continuously striving to be world-class. We’re using technology but not embracing it or necessarily using it to its full potential. I think a lot of things that have hit other industries to create big, global, world-class companies are just starting to impact the aftermarket now. I believe the next 20 years for us – growth in China, international growth – are things which are going to force companies in the aftermarket to change and to get better and more global and have service levels and product quality standards that are beyond what we have today. There’s still a long way to go.
AMN: You mentioned China, which is such an undefined territory in terms of the aftermarket today. Where do you see Federal-Mogul’s place in the global aftermarket and places such as China?
Ninivaggi: I do think part of maturing, as an industry, will mean becoming a more global industry. You see it on the distribution side. Most of our customers in North America have alliances with groups in Europe and elsewhere. You go to any aftermarket show, and you’ll see customers and people from all over the world. The product side of the business is definitely global. To be competitive, we have to be able to produce any product in any region of the world, wherever it happens to make sense. We engineer products all over the world. We use our global capabilities to produce better products everywhere. I think it is a global industry, and it will become increasingly global over time.
In the OE world, we have a global customer base. In the aftermarket, we still have mainly a regional customer base. Even though they have alliances and affiliations, they’re different, and the distribution model is different in every region of the world. Online is penetrating different parts of the world at different rates. At the same time we’re a global company from a product standpoint, we have to be a regional company from a distribution, sales, marketing, and even to some extent the brand side. So that’s the challenge for us, to be global where it’s important; to be global but also recognize the regional differences and tailor our approach, our go-to-market approach to the different regions of the world.
China is a very exciting market because not only is the vehicle population dramatically increasing and the car parc is aging, but they very much want to develop an independent aftermarket in China that has government support. As the market there matures, they’re looking for an alternative to the OES channel. Ironically enough, they are more concerned about counterfeit goods than probably any country in the world. Brands and reputation and OE pedigree and differentiated product offerings are as important or more important in China than virtually anywhere in the world.
Western brands in particular are highly regarded. The large service organizations that are developing in China are looking to partner with Western suppliers with strong brands and good supply-chain capabilities as a way to really capitalize on the growth in the independent aftermarket. It is very exciting. We’re growing at double-digit rates in China and have been for quite some time. We are investing aggressively. We’re building out our product portfolio and we launched two new distribution centers earlier this year.
We also entered into a joint venture on a distribution business in Thailand for the ASEAN region, which we think is a good opportunity, and we’re going to continue to build that out. We have manufacturing plants in China. As a company, we have 12-14 manufacturing plants just in China. So, we have a lot of credibility in the market, and as the aftermarket continues to grow, we should participate. But it is a very competitive market. It will not be without hiccups, just like the OEM suppliers, the ones who went into China early ultimately benefited. But, they had a number of years where there were ups and downs, and it will not be a straight line. Long-term, given the size of the market, the aging of the VIO and the support, it definitely is a very good opportunity.
AMN: Federal-Mogul and Garage Gurus recently hosted a YANG regional meet-up that met with rave reviews and was the most well-attended meet-up to date. What advice would you give to a young professional who wants to become a leader in the aftermarket? What are the keys to success?
Ninivaggi: The aftermarket is a really exciting industry. It’s enormously complex, more complex than most industries that I’ve been involved in in my career. You’ve got to be good at a lot of different things to be successful in the aftermarket, and technology, as I said earlier, is just beginning to really have an impact on everything we do – including manufacturing, distribution, ourdigital initiatives, etc. I would say for somebody who’s young, who wants an interesting industry that’s fundamentally healthy and profitable and that’s growing and is going to embrace new ways of doing business to basically improve the value of the industry, it’s a great place to start, but you can’t be insular. You have to look at other industries, and you’ve got to think globally and really understand the potential that the industry has longer-term.
The industry was set up in North America and also Western Europe to basically serve an important function. It had to get parts to the right place at the right time, within 30 minutes, for every vehicle that had been sold in the past 30 or 40 years. Somewhat clunky and inefficient, but effective. Technology now is allowing the same degree of effectiveness but much shorter supply chains, a much more efficient distribution structure, and that’s just beginning to impact us now. Our objective is always to figure out how we can take cost out and at the same time improve service, improve availability, improve product quality. That has hit many industries before ours. Now it’s hitting ours, and I think it’ll be really exciting over the next 20 years. Disruptive technology ultimately creates a better, more efficient model, but in that process, there’ll be winners and losers.
Our focus here is obviously performing well every day on the fundamentals and making sure we’re serving our customers every single day, but at the same time planning for the future. That’s sometimes a bit of a juggling act. For example, it’s hard to reconfigure your own distribution footprint when you’re shipping millions of parts a week. You have to take care of the business you have today, while at the same time creating a much stronger business for the future. That’s the process we’re going through. So far, so good.
AMN: As CEO, you manage 17,000 employees and 21 brands. It’s a massive business and, I imagine, a lot of pressure. Do you have any daily rituals that help you succeed or help you keep a clear head every day?
Ninivaggi: [laughter] Well, No. 1, Diet Coke. I don’t eat breakfast, I don’t eat lunch, but I have at least three Diet Cokes during the day. Actually, the only thing I do, which a very famous CEO once told me he does – and I couldn’t believe he could do this because he’s one of the most well-known and busiest CEOs in the world – he said, “No matter what I’m doing, on Wednesday morning, I sleep late, I have coffee with my wife, and I go work out, and I come into the office at 11 o’clock.” [laughter] Don’t tell my boss!
AMN: One day a week.
Ninivaggi: One day a week. Smack in the middle of the week to just clear your head a little bit, not get totally sucked into the day-to-day. And so, I do that. Part of the challenge is to, again, get into the daily grind and just every single day be better at what we’re doing and think about the future and make those trade-offs, and it’s not always easy, because there are trade-offs. I think we’ve got the right balance here.
AMN: What can we, as an industry, do to convince young people to get into the industry and see the local shop as being a good as business opportunity?
Ninivaggi: We are still a very “mom and pop” kind of industry. On the distribution side, you’re seeing the WDs under increasing pressure. On the service side, there’s still a lot of mom and pop repair shops. As cars become more complex, as supply chains become more complex and more integrated, and as technology hits the entire industry, whether it’s OBD or telematics or all the things we’ve been talking about on the distribution side, it’s going to be harder and harder for the mom and pop, the small businesses, to survive and do well. There is consolidation going on. We’ve seen it on the distribution channel and on the service side. The barriers to entry get higher and higher as cars become more complex and as vehicle diagnostics and things like that have a bigger and bigger impact. I do think part of the maturing of the industry is going to be a cull. It is going to separate the winners and the most capable companies from everybody else, and that’s going to be true on the parts side, on the distribution side and on the service side. There’ll be some consolidation. You’re already seeing it. We’re kind of in the middle of it. Will it accelerate? Probably, because those things tend to accelerate over time.
But the opportunity is to inherit grandpa’s business and modernize it; it’s definitely doable. It’s just very difficult, generally, to take a third-generation business and reinvent it. What’s the old saying about, you know, the first guy founds the business, the next guy grows the business, and the third generation cashes the business out, right? You see a lot of that.
Every generation that comes in is going to look at it with a fresh set of eyes, and they’re going to say, you know, look, we can have a mobile app. We could be on RepairPal. We can be online. We can have our hours at night. We can do different things. That’s healthy.
Every industry has been radically transformed in the past 20 or 30 years. Our industry, more or less, is still operating the way it was 20 years ago. How many other industries can you say that about?
Every industry has been impacted, but particularly supply chain companies. The industry has gone from being one of parts manufacturers to being end-to-end service and solutions providers. That’s really what you have to do to compete in the modern world. It’s not just good enough to have a good part because there’s somebody in India or China who can make a pretty good part. There is a lot of confusion in the market about what’s good. The gaps have narrowed. It’s really the service, and the service can’t be outsourced. In our business, you still have to deliver the part on time. It’s got to be the right part, and you’ve got to have the whole logistics enterprise to get it there and to take it back. We’re a logistics company as much as we are a parts company.
We have 300,000 active SKUs. A lot of the value we can create and do create is getting the part to the right place at the right time, and, as an industry, we’ve been pretty inefficient at it for many years.
I think it is exciting. If I were a young person who was interested in cars, I would be way more interested in the aftermarket than the OE world. In the OE world, it’s like working in a bank. It’s heavily regulated. Everything is being standardized, lightweighted, take content out, take cost out. That can be interesting, but it’s a really competitive market. We’re expected to improve the product and lower cost every year. It’s really hard, whereas our industry is much more healthy. On a full channel basis, our industry is very profitable, meaning from the parts manufacturer straight through to service, but it’s going to be less profitable over time as consumers get smarter, and they use technology to compare prices, and they shop check everything, and service chains become more competitive. So, it’ll be a little less profitable but still a very healthy industry – “healthcare for cars.” The impact that technology has over the next 20 years will be really exciting. If you’re young, and you like cars, and you’re fairly comfortable with technology and supply chain and logistics, and you’re willing to work or live in different places, I think it’s tremendous.
You said we’re kind of big, 17,000 employees, $3.2 billion in sales. We’re tiny compared to OEM suppliers. ZF TRW is $50 billion. Delphi is $20 billion. Denso is $45 billion. Lear is $20 billion. The big OE suppliers are light years ahead of us. And that’s what’ll happen in our industry. The big players are not going to be $3 billion. They’re going to be $10 billion. They’re going to be global, and they are going to offer all these different product lines. All the stuff we talked about on sales, marketing, distribution, on brands, you’ll leverage across a broader product portfolio, so it’s tremendous opportunity.
AMN: Do you see any value in focusing on just one category?
Ninivaggi: I think there’ll always be room for a product expert. If you’ve got good OE pedigree, great technology, innovative products, that’s fine, but as more of the value moves to sales, marketing, distribution, field support and brand management it’s hard to invest if you only have one category and are kind of limited. What I think could happen is we could team up with product experts and manage the front end of their aftermarket business and let them focus on being a great supplier of exhaust systems or turbochargers or whatever. We do that now with BorgWarner with Beru. We basically manage their line and an excellent brand.
I could see us teaming up, us or others who are building out aftermarket, but very few companies seem to have the appetite to build out massive distribution and IT and online and digital. It’s just so foreign to an OE-centric supplier. You’ve got to be marketing people, and you have to understand merchandising and retail, and you have to have supply chain gurus, and you have to have great people in the field. Most industries are not this complex. We’ve got to do six or seven things at a time really well, and most companies you only have to do like three, maybe four. That’s why I say it will be very difficult to be truly successful. We could fail.
AMN: As a culture within your company, what’s the feeling for throwing things at the wall to see what sticks? What if Garage Gurus bombed miserably? Are you guys okay with saying it didn’t work out, let’s go on to Plan B, or do you stick it out and make it work?
Ninivaggi: I think we’re going through an evolution as a company. The first phase of what we did was lay out a broad strategy. It was simple, relatively easy to understand, and we put some projects behind it, and now we’re two, two and a half years into that. Now, we’re refining it, and we’re being really rigorous about testing. What’s working? What’s not working? What have we done poorly or well? The next phase will be a much more detailed, granular analysis of that, and then we’ll go from there. But in the first days, if you get too granular, you’ll never get anything done. In the second phase, if you’re too loosey-goosey about it, then you can’t measure what’s working and what isn’t working. So, I think it’s an evolution. We’re not afraid to take risks and to try things, but we don’t have unlimited patience.
The one thing I would say that is markedly different today than two or three years ago is that we were very paralyzed, historically. Lots of things are changing, but what can we do about it? Go chase a little bit of business here, a bit of business there. When we decided okay, fine, we’re going to actually take a leap and do things differently, I think it freed up people to take more risks, and I think people like the change. Change is invigorating, right?