Though most auto manufacturers make very good products these days, quality remains a moving target in the industry, and winners and losers keep shifting places. Witness the stunning rise of Dodge to the top position in the latest version of the annual J.D. Power Initial Quality Study (IQS) after decades of Fiat Chrysler brands getting little respect for manufacturing quality.
Original-equipment manufacturers’ unceasing quest for still more quality improvements is one reason Bridgewater Interiors CEO Ronald Hall Jr. was happy his company received its own J.D. Power award recently. Owned by joint-venture partners Adient and Epsilon Technologies, the Detroit-based car-seat maker was recognized for two awards in the 2020 J.D. Power U.S. Seat Quality and Satisfaction Study. Bridgewater got first place for the seats for the Honda Pilot SUV and for the Ram 1500 pickup truck, based on responses from more than 87,000 purchasers and lessees of new 2020-model-year vehicles whom Power surveyed after 90 days of ownership.
“Over the last decade or so, all of the OEMs have tightened and raised their performance expectations,” Hall told Chief Executive. “We have to meet higher benchmarks on their performance scorecards to be eligible for new business. Their religion around quality has deepened [as] consumer expectations for vehicles clearly have increased.”
Ram also stunned car cognoscenti by notching a No. 4 finish, by far its highest ever, in the Power IQS study, trailing only Dodge, Kia — which tied Dodge for first — and Chevrolet. Making seats for Ram pickup trucks is one of the biggest accounts for Bridgewater, a $2-billion enterprise that was the second-largest minority-owned business in Detroit last year, according to Crain’s Detroit Business.
Bridgewater has kept growing in large part because of its ability to raise its own quality standards to match what its customers have been demanding. “Especially with American OEMs, over my career I have seen them shift from talking a great game about quality, to living it,” said Hall, who succeeded his father, Ronald Hall Sr., as head of Bridgewater and of Epsilon, which put together the joint venture with Adient, which then was part of Johnson Controls, in 1998.
Automakers “are being more dedicated to design processes and elements that keep problems out,” Hall Jr. said. “They’re spending more money on better materials and being more collaborative with us as we work through the design-and-build process. The competition doesn’t slow down.”
To keep ahead of its own competitors on quality, Bridgewater has chosen what might seem like a counterintuitive approach. While automation, artificial intelligence and other digital wonders keep taking over more and more production-line tasks in manufacturing, one reason Bridgewater is prospering is that it is depending more than ever on the skills and intelligence of its human workers.
“For all the science and automation that’s being brought in with new technologies, in seating there is still a need for art — you need [for instance] human hands and the human brain to get a leather seat free of wrinkles,” Hall said. “Or to get all of the connectivity between trim and foam. To seat headrest guides that won’t be off and rattle a little bit. To judge when a recliner motor doesn’t sound quite right when you’re testing it. To judge when a seat track doesn’t’ advance and retreat smoothly on the rails, in ways that some of the machines can’t always pick up.
“There’s a distinct, experienced, human skill set that is still really necessary,” Hall said.
His emphasis on the value of human capital is a big reason Hall believes Bridgewater keeps burgeoning while some other minority-business enterprises in the auto industry have failed.
“We have a long average tenure compared with other firms,” Hall said, “and higher percentages of female workers. Also, more than 40 percent of our management team were our hourly employees. You hope it’s part of the culture.”