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Cooper Standard CEO: Steering the Ship Toward Stability after Years of Change

Oct. 18, 2016
When he joined the auto supplier, Jeffrey Edwards had some tall tasks: winnowing the product line by half, and creating a company culture for 30,000 employees spread across 20 countries.

After a series of acquisitions in the early 2000s and a reorganization, by 2012 automotive components maker Cooper Standard was a sprawling company in need of a focus. Jeffrey Edwards, with leadership experience in Johnson Controls’ Asia operations, signed on as CEO that year to help with the expansion of Cooper’s footprint in China, India and Korea.

Edwards and his team set about winnowing the product lineup by half to four groups—rubber and plastic sealing, fuel and brake lines, fluid transfer hoses and anti-vibration systems--and creating a cultural structure for 30,000 employees at facilities spread across 20 countries.

The employees, having gone through so much change, were understandably feeling rootless.

“What people want to understand within any company is ‘What are we trying to accomplish, what’s the vision, what’s the mission and how do you want me to behave?’” says Edwards. “Initially, they didn’t understand what the mission was.”

The new mission is straightforward, if ambitious: become a Top 30 global supplier in sales and Top 5 in return on invested capital. Edwards led the drafting of a Cooper Standard Operating System—the company playbook, based around a set of  core values: diverse talent, total safety culture, integrity, quality, community partnership, continuous improvement. The values are posted at every plant, reiterated through plant leadership and newly implemented performance reviews and rewarded with Diamond Awards for facilities that excel across 10 Key Performance Indicators.

As one might expect from a company that produces more traditional, less technologically complex parts, Cooper Standard has inched rather than leapt toward its sales goals, moving from #69 in sales to #62 among top-tier suppliers. Revenue is up 32% since Edwards came on, and the stock price has more than doubled. Employee engagement is on the upswing, too, up by 8% since 2013, when Cooper Standard launched its first all-employee engagement survey.

Edwards credits a new focus on social responsibility, through the three-year-old Cooper Standard Foundation, with helping boost engagement and recruiting. Employees have raised $6 million so far to distribute to non-profit organizations in the community through the foundation.

“It was our intent to create a grassroots movement in every community that we live and work in around the world,” says Edwards. “And what we found is that working together in our communities created a bond and built relationships that otherwise you probably wouldn’t build only at work.

“Once we established what our culture was and why continuing to make car parts and give back in the communities was an equal expectation, we found that the best and the brightest people in our industry wanted to be a part of that.”

Cooper Standard has a grand total of 30 customers around the world, so relationships are everything, says Edwards. “We’d better know [our customers], and we’d better have a level of customer intimacy that’s better than any of our competition, and that’s what we strive to achieve,” says Edwards. “Do we know them, do we understand how we’re performing for them, do we continue to follow up and execute and deliver on our promises?”

To serve those customers, Cooper Standard has three priorities, says Edwards. The first is being well-positioned geographically to nimbly support OEMs with increasingly fewer and more variable global platforms.

The second, to help automakers meet higher emissions standards and green requirements with lighter-weight products and more recyclable materials.

“Rubber is extremely heavy,” says Edwards. “We’re developing material sciences that are going to reduce our products’ weight by 30 to 40%.”

The company’s product lines already go across a multitude of drive trains—electric, hybrid, diesel and gasoline. When the company was selling off and streamlining, it chose to focus on the four areas it did “because regardless of the power train shift within the automotive industry in the next 15 or 20 years, our products are still required.”

The third priority is to make products more durable, positioning the company to do well if shared mobility takes off in the coming years. “Traditionally, vehicles are used a little over two hours a day,” says Edwards, noting predictions of usage going way up with more expensive autonomous and connected vehicles and less individual ownership. Rubber sealing systems branded Fortex are expected to save 12 to 15 pounds per vehicle in large SUVs, and new abrasive-resistant Armor Hoses will have “a much longer life cycle.”

But without buy-in from the workforce, even the best R&D isn’t enough. “I can assure you there isn’t anything that we put more focus on than making sure our employees understand our values,” says Edwards. “Because they’re the folks that are coming in contact with our customers every day.”

About the Author

Laura Putre | Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

I work with IndustryWeek's contributors and report on leadership and the automotive industry as they relate to manufacturing. Got a story idea? Reach out to me at [email protected]


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