Interview with GWR GM, Carlos Grassi
What was your journey like to get here?
I began in the seat belt industry in the 1970’s working for the company Santpere de Paracaidas SA (which became “Klippan”) as chief engineer. We were designing and manufacturing parachutes and other products for military applications, but we were also manufacturing some of the first seat belts for automobiles. By 1977, most first-world countries required seat belts in all cars, and at that time we were mainly manufacturing three point static seat belts for front seats. We were just beginning to produce retractors for seat belts. Because drivers and occupants had not internalized the need to wear seat belts, some automobile manufacturers like GM, Ford, and Chrysler were installing passive (automatic) seat belts, where the door opened and the seat belt moved, but things were still evolving. It was an exciting time to be involved with seat belts because the industry, the companies involved, and the technology were constantly changing. As an engineer it was fun and complex work, as the products involved textiles, plastics, and complicated metal mechanisms. We used to say “it’s a Swiss watch working at 2000 kg (4400 lbs)”.
In 1977, Allied Chemical bought Klippan and we became a much larger company. They were investing a lot of money in growth, including designing, engineering, and testing seat belts with retractors. They built a large research and development facility in Belgium. I was the liaison with this engineering, helping to transfer the technology developed there to the factories. Our new retractor technology allowed us to begin supplying for the Ford Fiesta and Renault 5.
You also spent some time working with American Safety?
After working in Mexico for a few years, I was invited to help in coordinating a joint venture between Bendix and Pemsa. Bendix was producing automotive parts in the United States, and wanted to begin producing seat belts in Mexico. Their potential client at the time was Volkswagen, but Volkswagen was requiring seat belts with retractors that met the European R16 regulations, which I had expertise in. There were no seat belt manufacturers in the United States producing European seat belts at that time, and Bendix ultimately decided to establish a factory in Mexico. Pemsa already had a large factory, people, and knowledge of manufacturing in Mexico, and it became a partnership.
During that time I had the opportunity to fly to Los Angeles to meet with the President and the VP of American Safety (now known as Amsafe) for a job interview. Dick Babbit and John Sack then hired me to create American Safety Spain, where many of the cars in Europe were being manufactured. Almost 2 million cars were being produced in Spain at that time and the market was growing rapidly. My first job was to purchase a company called Novoland, which was a metal stamping company in Spain. The company had good relationships with Volkswagen-Seat, and we utilized their factory to begin producing seat belts for Volkswagen. Soon after we began supplying to Land Rover Suzuki and Renault.
It must have been an interesting time to be in the Seat Belt Business?
It was a pivotal and exiting time for me. I began to have access to the leaders in the industry. I remember fondly traveling with Dick Babbit to look for new business, and learning a lot from him. John Sack was President at the time and a very good businessman. I was reporting to Bob Pritzker, President of The Marmon Group, and also to John Sack. A couple of years later The Marmon Group sold the European seat belt business to Allied Chemical, as they had a good relationship with Larry Bossidy. The ownership of seat belt companies was changing very rapidly then.
How did business change thru these different ownerships?
The Marmon Group was great at managing the business, but with the acquisition by AlliedSignal came an increase in investment in new products and new factories. Soon after we became the second largest seat belt supplier in Europe behind Autoliv. I now worked for a very large company (AlliedSignal acquired Honeywell in 1999 for $15BB and assumed its name), but I was working with Alan Tucker, Former General Manager of the Kangol Company in the UK, and we were both entrepreneurial and making great progress towards being competitive and gaining market share in our industry.
What was your role in the impressive growth of AlliedSignal?
I was originally General Manager of Spain, and also acted as General Manger of Italy where we had four factories to service the auto industry there, and I eventually became Operations Manager for AlliedSignal Europe. I grew the factory in Barcelona by gaining the business of Renault, PSA, and Suzuki, but the big growth came from General Motors. In order to win their business, I built a new, fully automated factory in the village of Borja, next to where General Motors was producing. My decision was a bold one, but it turned out to be a great move for the company. At the time, the Japanese were working on just-in-time manufacturing, and I offered to General Motors that we would supply to them “just-in-line,” meaning we supplied to GM in their line, not to their factory. We operated a state-of-the-art facility and one of the best in Europe.