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.
I started in 1974, so 42 years. When I first started out, the automotive industry and the seat belt industry were changing very rapidly. Laws were being created that required new cars to be produced with seat belts, resulting in increased regulation. We were moving from 3-point non-retractable seat belts to 3-point retractable seat belts and the technology was advancing. The automobile manufacturers were becoming much more involved with their supply chains, and manufacturing processes were evolving to become much more efficient.
The 1970’s was when the United Nations rule ECE R16 started in Europe. Mention FMVSS in the United States. These rules specified seat belt requirements such as how much strength the webbing should sustain, and how many times buckles and retractors should be cycled. The European R-16 went much further, and required crash testing with specific anchorage points.
At the same time there was a push for new seat belt technology, and Ford was leading the charge. I was working for Allied Chemical at the time when Ford decided to assemble automatic seat belts. They were the first company to use seat belts with Emergency Locking Retractors (ELRs) in Spain. Allied Chemical was already producing ELRs in Germany and France, but custom fees back then were very expensive, so it was prohibitively expensive to import those retractors. Therefore we created all new tooling for a custom retractor for Ford in Spain.
Ford also had a lot to do with the changes in the manufacturing processes then. They were much more involved with their suppliers and their production. They started auditing their supplier’s factories. Ford said if we wanted to sell to them, we must implement their Quality System. We had to implement a strict control plan for incoming product, a strict control plan for production, and an audit of outgoing product. For example, just because you receive components from top suppliers, didn’t mean they were good enough for production. Therefore components coming into the warehouse had to be kept completely separate from production, and tested in a statistical way. Start by testing 10%, if no problems after one year, test 5%, if no problems after 2 years, test less, if a problem was found, test more. Any components not good enough for production had to be labeled red, and put behind a red line and behind a closed door. These are things that seem simple now, but these kinds of processes were one of the important things that happened in the 1970s. All of these processes became ISO 9001. After ISO was used, the customers stopped visiting our factories, and the ISO auditors were then responsible to make sure suppliers were following the right processes.
What made you want to start GWR?
In 1982, when Autoliv bought AlliedSignal Restraint Systems, there were a lot of smaller customers that Autoliv did not want to continue supplying. It was an instant market and we took advantage of the opportunity. We created a factory and started supplying to seat manufacturers, and also started manufacturing racing harnesses and occupant restraint systems for vehicles transporting people in wheelchairs. The company grew quickly from there, and when the laws in Europe changed to require seat belts in buses, we became specialists in that market and were exporting bus seat belts throughout Europe.
Any customers you wish you had?
We were close to working with Volkswagen in the 1990’s. They had decided to import the body of the old Volkswagen beetle from Mexico to Spain. Autoliv did not want the business because there was too much engineering work required for the volume, and they told Volkswagen to talk to GWR. We designed the seat belts for the beetle and had them tested and approved. Then Volkswagen in Germany decided to design and produce the new beetle.
Any good stories?
In 1992 the seat belt regulation changed to require three tested/homologated seat belts in the rear passenger seats of cars (prior that that it was just two). All of the automakers started doing this, but in July, 1992, Renault had cars that had been shipped to the dealers with two belts in the rear, not three. They hadn’t been sold yet, but they were sitting on the dealer lots. The law was such that starting September 1992, you could not sell any car that didn’t have the mandatory three seat belts in the rear. Autoliv was the supplier to Renault for those cars, but they could not handle it. Therefore Renault called GWR, and we agreed to manufacture the seat belts for them. Because we were already supplying to Renault, we had the approvals and homologations already in place for that belt. At that time, GWR’s factory would close for most of August, but we kept the factory open that month working full time to supply all the belts to Renault before September.
What are some recent changes at GWR?
We have recently been hiring more employees from top OEM suppliers, and the average seat belt industry experience for our employees has increased from 16 years to 22 years. The decision to invest in automated production lines has also increased our output. Hiring Carlos Grassi has brought new ideas and a refined strategy for growth. The company has a great history but the change in leadership is laying the groundwork a much more sophisticated and professional future. It is an exciting time at GWR Safety Systems.
How did you acquire your expertise in Quality Systems for automotive manufacturing?
I finished with the military service in 1975, and started working for Renault the first day they began putting 3-point seat belts in the Renault 8, which they exported all over Europe. So I was immediately involved with seat belts. The next vehicle launch was the Renault R5, which was the first Renault car produced in Spain with a seat belt with retractors. For the Renault R-19, where Renault started putting seat belts in the front and back seats, my main role was to review the quality of seat belts supplied from our main supplier, Autoliv. I would audit the factories of Autoliv to confirm they met the high quality standards for Renault. I was also responsible for analyzing the seat belts from Autoliv, to confirm they met our standards and the specifications for each car.
I became heavily engrained in all of Renault’s Quality Processes, and making sure the components from our suppliers and our product met the highest standards. I became responsible for controlling the quality for seat belts, door hinges, all the glass parts for the cars, and the filters for air, oil, and gas. I worked with those suppliers on warrantied product, and we implemented a process for controlling all rejected products shipped to our factories. Renault is known for their intense focus on quality, and I learned the best systems early in my career.
How did the Quality Systems change over time?
The quality systems evolved and our processes became very refined, resulting in a significant drop in defects. In an increased effort to reduce quality problems, we began to audit the suppliers of our suppliers. Before the 1990’s, Renault didn’t measure quality with PPMs (parts per millions), we measured component problems per 1000 pieces, and our objective was 15/1000. When we moved to PPMs later in the 1990s, our goal was less than 200per Million. So there was significant improvement as a result of the new quality processes.
Tell us about your work with AlliedSignal.
When I was working at Renault we would rank our suppliers with a grade of either “A,” “B,” or “C.” “A” suppliers were the top suppliers, “B” suppliers were average, and “C” suppliers would be replaced. AlliedSignal supplied Renault, and at the time was a “B” supplier. A company needed to be an “A” supplier in order to be awarded new contracts. Because AlliedSignal wanted to supply to more Renault factories, they needed the “A” rating. Therefore they hired me to be their Director of Quality, which meant I was in charge of all quality for seat belts for AlliedSignal, a Global company. I handled all quality issues from suppliers, customers, and all regulation approval testing. TRW, Takata and AlliedSignal were all competing at the time to be the second largest seat belt supplier in Europe behind Autoliv. We made significant improvements in our productivity and quality, increasing our competitiveness. We became an “A” supplier for Renault resulting in more contracts with additional factories. We were supplying to Ford, and we were also able to acquire General Motors as a customer, and I handled that relationship. Allied Signal became the second largest seat belt manufacturer in Europe.
Our quality and productivity increased dramatically. We started forming these work groups to focus on quality, and implemented six sigma. One of our plants in Spain was producing over 15,000 seat belts per day with 3 shifts. One of the automated lines could produce 7,000 belts per shift, and 3,020 buckles per shift. The average productivity rates of all of our lines was an incredible 99.97%. This meant we had essentially no quality problems, no supplier problems, our employees people were working efficiently, and no downtime for the machines (the machines were working over 99% of time). One year we reached zero parts per million for General Motors, and we were supplying to GM plants in Germany, Spain, and England.
You have experience working for just-in-time suppliers to the Volkswagen group?
I am a certified auditor for Volkswagen suppliers, and have spent many years helping automotive manufacturers that supply to Volkswagen. For one company, I handled all of their quality processes, and helped them with their FMEA for their plant in Mexico. Because I am familiar with the Volkswagen requirements and auditing processes, we made sure all the processes were in place for them to pass the Volkswagen audit. Audi and Volkswagen are known for having the highest safety quality standards; Renault and PSA have the highest reputation for quality of appearance. I am familiar with both and have a comprehensive view of the quality requirements of the automotive industry.
What are your goals with GWR?
Our goal is to reach zero PPMs. GWR has a great quality system, which I have strengthened quite a bit. As Director of Quality I oversee all their quality processes. GWR started producing for Suzuki directly for their SUVs (Samurai & Vitara). They were producing 200-300 seat belts per day for Suzuki, and this wouldn’t have been possible without the Quality Program that was implemented. GWR currently supplies seat belts for many OEMs, and I am proud to see that we have built a Quality Program at GWR that satisfies the strict demands of leading seat and vehicle manufacturers.
North American Factory
4466 C D Banks
St. Louis, MO 63113
+1 (314) 732-0338
Carrer Barcelonès nº 10
08520 Les Franqueses del Vallès
+34 93 871 76 67
GWR is a leading custom seat belt and harness manufacturer specialized in designing, developing, and manufacturing automotive and non-automotive safety restraint systems. Our products are featured in more than 200 vehicle models produced by over 100 well-diversified customers worldwide. The company has two main technical centers located in the United States and Europe.