DETROIT - The retirement of Charles Szuluk, president of Visteon Automotive Systems, leaves the world3/8s second-largest auto supplier in the hands of a relatiVe newcomer.
But the rise of Craig Muhlhauser to the top job does not necessarily mean a new direction for Visteon.
Although Muhlhauser joined Ford Motor Co. only 15 months ago, he was a key player in Szuluk's strategy to make Visteon a stand-alone supplier. Szuluk hired the 50-year-old former Pratt & Whitney executive in 1997 to create a marketing division.
Muhlhauser started almost from scratch. Previously, Ford's parts operation did almost no marketing to outside customers. Over the following year, Visteon assembled a sales team of 200 employees and opened sales offices in Paris, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Yokohama, Wolfsburg and other automotive capitals.
Szuluk and Muhlhauser also created a new identity for the $17 billion operation. Thirteen months ago, they dropped the Ford name for Visteon to mark its independence.
Sales outside Ford
Visteon's name and logo, a swirl of orange dots, drew some laughs. But Szuluk had the right idea, said Jerry Rivard, who was chief engineer of Ford's electronics division from 1976 to 1986.
'It was badly needed,' Rivard said. 'If they didn't get that independence, their ability to sell outside Ford would have been zero.'
The effort to reposition Visteon has produced some positive results. When Visteon was launched in 1997, non-Ford customers accounted for only 5 percent of sales. So far this year, Visteon has booked $1.8 billion in new business, and non-Ford customers account for 45 percent of that.
On the other hand, Ford is beginning to force Visteon to compete with outside suppliers for Ford business. For example, Ford once purchased all of its engine control units internally or from Motorola. Two years ago, Ford ended that policy.
A key portion of Visteon's drive for more non-Ford customers will be the instrument panel.
Visteon can produce every major component housed in the instrument panel, including wiring, instrument clusters, and audio and climate control systems. Szuluk saw it as the key portion of a vehicle's cockpit.
Under Muhlhauser, Visteon's marketing emphasis on cockpits and instrument panels is likely to continue.
Another key part of Visteon's strategy is the aftermarket. The division hopes to create a brand image for itself for audio systems, on-board navigators and other componentry.
If Visteon continues to pick up non-Ford business, many observers expect Ford to spin off its parts operation. If so, Visteon would be following the example set by the world's biggest supplier, General Motors' Delphi Automotive Systems. Twenty percent of Delphi will be sold off next year.
Seats for sale
Some observers believe Visteon must take that step to be perceived as truly independent from Ford. Szuluk recently acknowledged that some customers are still concerned about Visteon's close ties with Ford.
During an interview at the Paris auto show this fall, he admitted that other automakers are not ready to buy seats from Visteon.
Seat makers are deeply involved in a vehicle's interior styling, and non-Ford customers are not yet ready to allow Visteon into their design studios, Szuluk said.
Two weeks later, Ford announced the retirement of Szuluk, 55, and six other vice presidents as the automaker prepares for Jacques Nasser to become CEO on 1 January.
Although Visteon is a work in progress, Rivard said Szuluk made considerable progress. 'He had some pretty ambitious goals for that operation,' said Rivard. 'He was setting out to change an organization that had rigid, built-in ways of doing business.'