One-on-One: Kentucky auto manufacturing finds its voice

By Ed Lane

Tatman 81414-4
Dave Tatman was recently named as the inaugural executive director of the Kentucky Automotive Industry Association. He also serves at Western Kentucky University as associate vice president for advanced manufacturing. Tatman retired after a 34-year career at General Motors, where he most recently served as plant manager for the Corvette Assembly Facility in Bowling Green. During his time at the Bowling Green plant, Tatman led five consecutive model-year launches and oversaw a $131 million investment to upgrade the plant and equipment, adding 350 new jobs, to produce the all-new 2014 Corvette Stingray, which was named as the NA Car of the Year in January 2014. Tatman, who holds a bachelor’s degree in science, industrial and systems engineering from Ohio State University and a master of business administration, corporate policy from Michigan State University, recently co-authored a book on leadership entitled “Building Cathedrals – The Power of Purpose.”

Ed Lane: In April 2014, Gov. Steve Beshear announced the formation of a new entity, the Kentucky Automotive Industry Association (KAIA). The association has a 12-person board of directors and is chaired by Larry Hayes, secretary of the Cabinet for Economic Development. Secretary Hayes in July announced your selection as the executive director. You have been in your new position about eight months. What are your specific duties as executive director of the KAIA?
Dave Tatman: Let’s step back to March 2014, when I retired from Corvette (as manager of GM’s Bowling Green Assembly Plant). I decided to retire because my family and I wanted to stay in Kentucky. I had a terrific 34-year career at General Motors; I loved every minute of it. There are some challenging times, as you well know, but the Corvette plant had been my 13th GM location, and I didn’t want to have a 14th. My wife and daughter and I had fallen in love with Kentucky. I chose to leave General Motors, without a real clear plan for my next career steps. But I had this notion that I wanted to work on a little larger scale. I had enjoyed tremendous success with General Motors, capped off by the incredible launch and success of the new Corvette Stingray.
I was starting to explore some options when I got a phone call from Secretary Hayes. He congratulated me on my GM retirement and then asked what my next steps would be, and I said I wasn’t sure. He said he had an idea. And so that began our conversations, even before the announcement had been made about the (formation of) KAIA. On the first of July, I started full-time as executive director with the association. It was very important to the governor and the KAIA board of directors that the organization be seen and perceived as industry-driven. The KAIA fit perfectly into what I wanted: to work on a larger scale. My charge, at the direction of our board of directors, is to build the KAIA into a common voice for the auto industry in Kentucky. The industry is vital to the economy of the commonwealth, but prior to last summer Kentucky really didn’t have an organization that represented the state’s auto industry.

EL: What are the primary missions of the KAIA?
DT: The KAIA has established four objectives. The first is branding. The auto industry doesn’t have a brand in Kentucky. When the governor goes to speak to the conferences in Germany, they’ll often scratch their heads and say, “Kentucky?” When I talk to groups around the state and the country about Kentucky being the third-largest state in terms of automotive production, they’re like, “Really?” So we need to brand the industry and demonstrate that Kentucky is a great place to operate an automotive business.
The KAIA’s second objective is advocacy – to be a voice for the auto industry. This is actually a very comfortable position for me because I understand the life of my colleagues in the industry throughout Kentucky. The fact is, the pace of the automotive business is such that managers rarely have time to look beyond today or tomorrow. And the issues that we face as an industry in terms of our opportunities for growth and overcoming obstacles to expansion are issues a plant manager doesn’t address because he doesn’t have time. You worry about it, but it never gets to the top of your to-do list. I spent 34 years running operations.
I know how to run a factory. I know I ignored important objectives during that time because they were outside the four walls of my plant. I didn’t have to worry about “that” issue; I was hoping somebody else was doing that. Well, I’m doing that now for the automotive industry. That’s the advocacy piece.
toyotas-crew Our third objective is leadership. Because auto manufacturing lacked a common voice as a Kentucky industry, it never really stood up as an industry and said, here’s our perspective. (It didn’t answer questions about) what does the automotive industry think about this?
The fourth and final objective, and really probably the one I spend the most of my time on, is workforce development. The biggest challenge we face in the automotive industry is having talented workers ready to take the jobs that are becoming available. And so that’s how I spend a lot of my time. I’m in middle and high schools; I’m at colleges and universities; I’m in the community and technical schools, working to ensure that exceptional occupational opportunities of our industry are known.

EL: How big is Kentucky’s automotive industry?
DT: The automotive industry in the state of Kentucky is comprised of about 460 different manufacturing plants, employing almost 90,000 employees. It’s a huge impact. It exports over $5.5 billion worth of automobiles and automotive products every year. In 2014, the state of Kentucky built over 1.2 million light vehicles and passenger cars. When you think about that in the context of things, that puts Kentucky third, behind only Michigan and Ohio. The epicenter of the automotive business is moving south, and Kentucky is right in the heart of that growth area and has the ability to take advantage of its central U.S. location.

EL: Is the KAIA underwriting a state auto industry economic impact study?
DT: The KAIA has partnered with UofL’s Urban Studies Institute to do an economic impact study for the automotive industry in Kentucky. It’s very similar to the study UofL did for the distilling industry – primarily the bourbon industry – that they released last fall. We want to fully understand that (dollar and job) multiplier effect of the auto industry. Is it four, is it nine, is it 12? There are a lot of jobs created for every job created in an auto manufacturing plant. We want to understand the metrics of economic development growth as it compares to neighboring states and to our competition. So we’re going to use that study to conduct nine regional workshops throughout the state in the spring and summer. Eighty of Kentucky’s 120 counties have some form of automotive business in them.

EL: Is the move to the South partly because of right-to-work?
DT: That’s a great question. I expected to talk about right-to-work today. I tend to agree with Gov. Beshear’s position. Right-to-work is very much a sensitive political issue today. We’re seeing the debate going on. About 25 of the 50 states now have some right-to-work legislation. We’re seeing the debate in Wisconsin right now. Michigan and Indiana both chose to go right-to-work recently. It is a tool for economic development. I think it was a very attractive issue for a lot of the European and Asian automakers who have located in the South. But in our state, we find both union and nonunion firms working very effectively.
I’ve got members on both sides of the equation, so I don’t take a firm stance on right-to-work. I say, let’s leave it to the legislature; see what the government decides to do about it. There are potentially companies who won’t consider Kentucky because it is not a right-to-work state, and I suppose – but I don’t know for a fact – the reverse could be true as well, that there are companies who located here because Kentucky does welcome unions. The evidence suggests that Kentucky’s done a tremendous job of attracting businesses in spite of a lack of right-to-work legislation.

Tatman-Vette-textEL: How was your working relationship with unions when you worked for GM?
DT: I worked 34 years in a union environment, and I never found a union official that I couldn’t work with. At the end of the day, we’re just a couple of people trying to make a living for our families. You approach it that way and you don’t say, “You’re wrong and I’m right.” Collaboration is the name of the game, so I’m not overly pro-union or right-to-work. I think both concepts can peacefully coexist, as they have in Kentucky for a long time.

EL: Does the free-market system equalize prices and wages in the auto industry? If you are a manufacturer and nonunion, you have to pay competitive wages to attract quality employees.
DT: Yes, especially in this environment of scarce labor. You know, we’re seeing that happen all the time. Walmart, for heaven’s sake, raised its minimum wage. All the guys at McDonald’s and Burger King are starting to scurry, and we just heard yesterday that Target is raising its wages. It is so interesting that states are having a debate on (raising their) minimum wage. Meanwhile, free market forces have taken over, and employers are starting to respond.

EL: Even though Ford had been manufacturing cars and trucks in Kentucky since 1913, do you think Toyota locating in Kentucky 30 years ago was especially important because it was a catalyst to expand the state’s automotive industry? At the time, the state’s economy was weak and population growth was static because not that many people were inmigrating to Kentucky, and some were outmigrating because they didn’t have jobs.
DT: Certainly Toyota deciding to build its operations in Georgetown was a huge benefit for the state of Kentucky. I congratulate all the leaders who recruited Toyota. Georgetown is now one of Toyota’s largest manufacturing facilities in the world and, of course, Toyota is going to launch the new Lexus there. But moreover, Toyota has exercised terrific corporate citizenry in the time they’ve been here in Kentucky. As Toyota worked to develop infrastructure, it also worked to develop relationships with government and jurisdictional entities, and Toyota has brought other businesses with them.
crossoverThere’s a huge incentive and impetus in the automotive industry to locate supplier plants in proximity to assembly plants. And as we move further in the technology of vehicle assembly, the original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, do less and less in their plants utilizing their employees and rely more and more on service providers. So that industry is growing as well. Toyota has been here about 30 years; GM has been in Bowling Green about 30 years; Ford has been in Louisville over 100 years. Those OEMs are the foundations upon which Kentucky has built a terrific base of automotive business.

EL: How will the KAIA be funded?
DT: Upon founding the KAIA, each board member was regarded as a founding member. Our board is comprised of the three OEM members, a member from the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet (Hayes as chairman) and eight other significant suppliers. And each of these firms primed the pump for the KAIA with a founder’s fee. And every member pays annual dues, so as the KAIA grows, dues revenue grows. And we’ll continue to see additional funding from special events and sponsorships to auto-related events that will continue to propagate the organization.

EL: What is your relationship with Western Kentucky University?
DT: At the same time that I was having conversations with the state and the KAIA, I was approached by WKU to talk about how the university could leverage my background, skills and experience to further auto industry relationships with the university. And so I work on a very limited part-time basis for WKU, connecting the dots in the south-central Kentucky region, in WKU’s region of influence, to try and ensure that when industries seek university assistance or partnerships, I can help facilitate that.

EL: Would WKU provide specialized training for people in the automotive industry, or would that be specifically through the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, which created the successful Advanced Manufacturing Technician program?
DT: It could be all of the above. One of the things we’re having a lot of discussion about is that there’s this very significant aluminum business development in south-central Kentucky and up along the Owensboro corridor, and the industry needs materials science and metallurgical engineering. The University of Kentucky is now setting up a terrific program in those areas, but short-term certification training is also needed, so WKU is focusing on that. The relationships that are most leverageable for an educational institution like WKU or UK or the University of Louisville are those collaboratively working with the auto industry on applied research. The auto industry doesn’t have the time, resources or desire to do a lot of research for research’s sake, but universities do, and they’ve got terrifically talented great young minds available. Those kinds of partnerships and industrial relationships have been developing for a long time and continue to develop in a significant way.

F-150EL: One of the highest priority issues for the auto industry is workforce development. What are some of the training programs available for persons who are interested in an auto manufacturing career?
DT: You’ve hit on a really critical issue here in Kentucky. Our situation, in terms of workforce readiness, is quite frankly no different than we see in other auto manufacturing centers around America. I heard all about it in South Carolina (in late February). Toyota and GM have been here about 30 years, which is the duration of a normal automotive career path – 30 or 35 years. Employees are now starting to retire. Job openings are also occurring because the auto business is globally expanding – the North American market is continuing to expand unbelievably – it hasn’t been that long ago 9 million cars a year were built in North America; now the industry is looking at building 18 million cars this year.
So not only is there increased auto sales, but we have a huge attrition of (retiring) employees also going on. The auto industry has a significant crisis on its hands with having people ready for these jobs. So I applaud the efforts of the Kentucky Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME). KY FAME is spreading statewide out of a program that was started in Georgetown by Toyota and the Bluegrass Community and Technical College. It’s a five-semester cooperative internship educational experience where the student goes to school two days a week full-time – and this is not two or three classes; they go from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., a full work day – and they work three days a week. And after five semesters, students graduate with a dual-tracked apprenticeship now that allows them to become skilled maintenance technicians.
The skill sets that Kentucky FAME also teaches include problem solving, teamwork, and many other so-called softer side skills. Those are very important in the world that we work in today. I would venture to guess there are very few automotive employees in the state of Kentucky who don’t work in small groups, working on problems that their group faces. So all of those dynamics are in play as well.
There are a number of companies involved in FAME; it’s been around for about 13 years. In a conversation at a KAIA event in October 2014, I was talking with some of our members up in Northern Kentucky, which is a hotbed for some German auto (parts) manufacturers. At this event, we discussed what’s going on in Georgetown at the KCTCS school there, and the idea to start copying and pasting that training program around the state. So now we’ve got this terrific initiative going on with Kentucky FAME: A chapter is now operating in Northern Kentucky at Gateway Community College; in Louisville, Ford has a program at Jefferson Community College; a chapter is planned in Elizabethtown.
Much like Toyota, Ford had been working on this effort for a while, and the domestic big three have had a long history of apprenticeship programs. General Motors had stepped away from them for a long period of time because its auto production was shrinking; GM still had all these employees, so it didn’t have any need to train new employees. Well, now all of a sudden GM is saying, oh my gosh, we need qualified employees. If Ford were to graduate apprenticeships into regular skilled trades type of work, those employees could transfer under the provisions of the Ford UAW international agreement to other Ford plants around the country.

KFAM-EdBdEL: You started your career at GM as a college intern and retired from the company in 2014 as the plant manager of GM’s Corvette plant in Bowling Green. Are you a “poster boy” for a career in advanced manufacturing?
DT: I certainly was blessed with a terrific 34-year career at GM. I actually was selected in my sophomore year of college, in a competitive interview process, to be what was then called a “GM scholar,” where GM paid for my tuition and books and gave me a summer internship my last two years of school. So that set me on the path that said maybe this was a potential career. There was no obligation to go to work for GM when I graduated. I interviewed – it was a very good time to graduate; I had a number of offers – but I found myself comparing the other offers to the job I was going to do at GM. In some respects my career path at GM could be considered a case study. I got my master’s degree at night; I worked all day and went to the University of Michigan at night, and GM paid all my tuition and books for that degree.
That certainly facilitated my learning and knowledge of business systems. And things progressed from there. If one chooses that kind of career today, that’s certainly a typical or potential career path that may require sacrifices. You’d better be prepared for moving your family, working in a number of different locations, and that would usually include some international locations. I worked in three different countries: Canada, the U.S. and Brazil. And I moved my family five times. The four-year degree, starting with a business or engineering degree, and then working your way up, is absolutely a clear career path. But as I said, not everybody is motivated that way. When you look at a trillion-dollar student debt problem in this country, maybe college isn’t the right answer for everybody. Successful is a relative definition. Success could be having a satisfying career in advanced manufacturing that allows you to provide a quality lifestyle for your family.

EL: Since a limited number of the general public has actually been inside an “advanced manufacturing auto plant,” is there a perception about working in an auto plant that does not reflect reality?
DT: Absolutely! That’s a big problem. Not only do auto employers need to convince elementary, middle and high school students of the attractiveness of auto manufacturing jobs, but they’ve got to convince their parents of that as well. The Corvette plant is open to the public for tours every day that it runs cars. There are four public tours a day. In many ways, that was the only impression of GM and of automotive manufacturing that many people would ever get. Now Toyota does tours, and Ford does some limited tours, so there are those opportunities, but it was very important to me that whoever came in the door to see our plant walked away saying that it was a clean plant, well-lit, with workers fairly tasked with the jobs they have to do, that they’re ergonomically sensitive, that all those kinds of things were true.
That’s the manufacturing world we work in today. Now there are some tough jobs in manufacturing; don’t get me wrong. But by and large, the auto industry has elevated the whole scheme of things in manufacturing to where the jobs are good jobs. It will probably take another generation of workers until the perception that manufacturing is ‘dark, dirty and dangerous’ is completely eliminated. Employers expect you to come to work every day, to stay drug-free, to be at work on time, and to work until the end of the shift. But what’s wrong with that? That’s just a good work ethic.

EL: What are the pay ranges (for new trainees to highly experienced workers) in auto manufacturing jobs?
DT: It varies a lot from company to company. Probably the bottom end is around $15 an hour, and the top end can be north of $30, plus overtime. Plus Ford and GM both have, as part of their national agreements with the UAW, a profit-sharing plan that kicks in extra money. It’s a pretty good compensation package with benefits.

EL: Do you have a closing comment?
DT: As I said, I woke up every day and was excited to go to work at GM. I am so blessed to have a second career chapter that is equally exciting and fun for me. For 34 years I was confined to the four walls of a factory; I could hardly leave for lunch, and my life went in 6-second increments. So I’m enjoying very much the opportunity to travel the state, to get into different suppliers and automotive companies, to talk and to learn what really is on people’s minds. A huge amount of the automotive supplier business is done by very small firms. There are also some megaplayers in the supply business, as big as the OEMs, but the reality is that there are a lot of small shops around the state that, prior to the KAIA’s formation, never knew how they could get their voices heard. Well, there’s a way now, and I love being the person to talk to about Kentucky’s auto industry. ■

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