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Fresh approach excites UAW; dealers cautious

November 5, 2009

Fresh approach excites UAW; dealers cautious

The Detroit News

Throughout Metro Detroit and across the nation, workers, politicians and dealers waited and watched Wednesday as Chrysler made its pitch to turn the company around with new products and a fresh approach to manufacturing and marketing.

Union leaders representing Chrysler workers in the United States and Canada hailed the promise of overhauling plant operations. The "world class manufacturing" concept is intended to eliminate waste, increase safety and encourage teamwork.

It also eliminates a layer of management in the plant.

Detroit’s Jefferson North, where the Jeep Grand Cherokee is made, has been a test site for the concept, which soon will be implemented at all Chrysler plants, said Scott Garberding, Chrysler’s head of manufacturing.

"We’re very excited that we can roll out the concept to all our facilities," said General Holiefield, a United Auto Workers vice president and head of the union’s Chrysler bargaining unit.

"Overall, I think what Fiat is doing is invigorating."

It’s still unclear if any of the eight plants slated to close by the end of 2010 can be saved, said Holiefield, who attended the unveiling at Chrysler’s Auburn Hills headquarters.

"That’s still a work in progress," he said, noting the two sides are in daily discussions on how to save U.S. plants from closure.

In Chrysler plants, it was mostly business as usual Wednesday. Workers will start getting details of the company’s new plans today. Warren Truck Assembly employee Melvin Thompson, a 15-year Chrysler veteran, said the emphasis on better vehicle design and fuel efficiency "sounds great."

Locally, dealers who survived the company’s painful closure plans enacted earlier this year were cautiously optimistic about Chrysler’s five-year plan. It includes a number of big changes for dealerships, such as extracting the Ram truck brand from the Dodge nameplate and making Chrysler vehicles more upscale.

Dealers were enthused about the prospect of more efficient powertrains and freshened looks for the American-branded vehicles, as well as the arrival of Fiat’s small cars.

"I’m very excited, but also quite cautious," said Gordon Farhat, general sales manager at Westborn Chrysler Jeep in Dearborn.

"I think it’s going to be a rough year until we get these new products. But once we have them, we’ll finally have good, small cars that people will want to buy."

In Washington, U.S. Treasury Department officials praised the turnaround presentation, calling it a "bold restructuring plan." But they were quick to add that the government wasn’t a player in developing it, despite the Treasury’s financial stake in post-bankruptcy Chrysler.

"Consistent with our post-restructuring role, the government was not involved in the development of this plan. Members of the (Obama autos) team were briefed on the plan once it was finalized," said Treasury spokeswoman Meg Reilly.

"We appreciate the company’s commitment to a bold restructuring plan. Our focus is on making sure the U.S. taxpayer gets repaid."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said she had spoken with new Chrysler Chairman C. Robert Kidder and thinks the Fiat team is doing a good job.

"They have come in and are doing the right things to make the changes they need to make," Stabenow said.

"They are moving in the right direction.""> (313) 222-2760 Nathan Hurst contributed.

© Copyright 2009 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.

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