Bridgewater Interiors Advances Steadily Through New Challenges

Bridgewater Interiors successfully navigated the worst of covid and its customers’ microchip shortages but is pivoting to the future with challenges in its own supply-chain strategy and on the labor-retention front.

CEO Ronald Hall Jr. has steadily built the customer base of automakers for his Detroit-based seating manufacturer with consistent performance, high quality levels, a dedicated workforce and readiness to rise to the demands of new contracts reached with industry players including Stellantis and Honda.

The $2-billion enterprise is one of the largest minority-owned businesses in Detroit, owned by joint-venture partners Epsilon Technologies and Adient. Bridgewater employs about 2,200 people at facilities in Detroit; Warren, Michigan; and Eastaboga, Alabama.

Exemplary of the challenges faced by Hall are tremendous pressures from high employee turnover, which suddenly has afflicted a company that took great pride in extremely strong retention rates. Over the years, Hall has made a point of depending more than many other suppliers on the skills and intelligence of the company’s human workers, rather than moving toward automation. Bridgewater has won highly regarded quality awards for its seats from J.D. Power & Associates.

But the rapid employee turnover that has plagued companies across the U.S. economy over the last several months has affected Bridgewater as well.

“We enjoyed very low turnover across our footprint, pre-covid,” Hall told Chief Executive. “But the world has certainly changed in the last couple of years. We have replaced probably one-third of our hourly workforce at our Warren facility,” the company’s largest. “There’s been a tremendous amount of churn. We’ve had to work harder than ever before in the company’s history to recruit.”

Bridgewater’s tactics have included shift premiums, signing bonuses, retention bonuses and referral bonuses. “We’ve significantly overspent our originally budgeted amounts for labor,” Hall said. And yet Bridgewater must continue to pay overtime and continually re-work production schedules, which stresses even the most experienced employees. Hall works hard to make sure they’re as recognized and rewarded as possible.

“Their commitment and professionalism is how we’ve bene able to remain afloat, with quality levels remaining very high,” Hall said. “It’s really been remarkable to me how resilient the portion of the workforce that has chosen to remain with us has been.”

The company also has been challenged by a recently added contract to make seats for Stellantis’s Ram Classic pickup truck at Bridgewater’s facility in Warren, the northeastern-Detroit suburb that is in the heart of Stellantis production country. Stellantis, and a different company that supplies seats to Stellantis models being built adjacent to the Ram Classic, have “had launch challenges, and that has impacted the operation” at Stellantis’s truck-assembly plant in Warren that takes Bridgewater’s seats, Hall said.

“On top of the semiconductor shortage” that is affecting Stellantis and all other automakers, he said, “that has greatly limited demand” for the Ram Classic and, thus, for Bridgewater’s seats. Stellantis “has assured us they plan to return to normal volumes,” Hall said.

Dale Buss: Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.
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