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An Industry Catalyst

Michigan’s new automotive adviser sits down with the Detroiter

Pages 28-29

In September, Gov. Rick Snyder announced the creation of an Automotive Industry Office and named Nigel J. Francis as the state’s automotive adviser. With his position housed within the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Francis is charged with developing, implementing and executing a comprehensive strategic plan and road map for the automotive industry in Michigan.

In early December, the Detroiter caught up with Francis as he and his team were working on a comprehensive strategic plan for driving Michigan’s automotive industry forward.

What appealed to you about this role as the state’s senior automotive adviser?

Michigan’s new automotive adviser sits down with the Detroiter An Industry Catalyst As an engineer who has spent his entire career in the auto industry, this opportunity was most attractive. Through the formation of the automotive office, I get to act as the catalyst for the industry and have some influence on the long-term future direction of the industry in my adopted home state. Michigan is automotive in so many different ways.

What do you think is the biggest priority for Michigan’s automotive industry?

The industry’s production volume has now recovered to where it was before the 2008 decline. Importantly, it has learned many lessons along this path of decline and recovery and is much stronger than it was before. The workforce across the complete automotive value chain is 100 percent focused on the efficient creation of globally relevant, best-in-class products that excite and delight the normal woman or man who buys and uses the product. This is a critical aspect of our success going forward as we have everything here that is needed in the state to continue to design, engineer and manufacture the best vehicles in the world. The industry should congratulate itself on such a strong turnaround and the positive effects of that turnaround are seen today everywhere in the state. We should not be afraid to be “loud and proud” about our state, our industry and our products.

For me, the biggest priority for our automotive industry is that we should all work as a team to ensure that we not only remain the global center of the automotive industry, but that we also strengthen and reinforce that position year after year going forward.

What is the goal of Michigan’s new automotive strategy?

We must continually remind ourselves that the industry and the competition for what we do every day is truly global and that our competition is not standing still, but rather moving quickly every day to reinvent itself also. Our governor refers to this as “relentless positive action.” We must relentlessly pursue the next technologies and the talented people that we will need to live and work here to help us understand and then implement those new technologies into our future products.

What is that strategy going to look like and when will it be rolled out?

Upon formation of the automotive office, we engaged a team of experts from the industry to work together to define the critical components of our automotive industry of the future. It is clear from that work that the trump cards that we must have here in Michigan are “the right technologies and talent in the right place at the right time.” We have identified a need to reinforce our industry efforts in the following areas:

  • Connected, automated and autonomous
  • Lightweight and multimaterial vehicle and systems;
  • Advanced powertrain and propulsion systems;
  • World-class manufacturing, supply chain management and logistics.

Along every step of the way, people are critically important. We need to continually retain, attract and educate our extended workforce … and we will need to secure the capital to make necessary investments to empower the above.

What role do you see regional economic development partners, like MICHauto, playing in implementing the strategy?

MICHauto does great work and we are lucky to have it and its dedicated team within Michigan. Our state is organized around regions, and as such, the economic development of each of these regions is led by that region with central support from the MEDC and other cross-state organizations involved in enhancing our economy and our core industry. I think that, as far as automotive sector economic development is concerned, the roles continue, but within a newly focused “mission.” Clear direction and a unified purpose are amplifiers to any business no matter what or where that business is.

How do you see the automotive industry fitting in to Michigan’s overall economic strategy?

It is absolutely critical. The automotive industry is our core industry in the state – our anchor, and our means of moving forward economically into the future. We have to respect it, nurture it and develop it going forward as an industry and state, as one team, to ensure we continue to strengthen and grow our core industry going forward over the long term and prepare it for the many changes that will inevitably come and challenge us again in the future. Pure and simple, Michigan is automotive.

What challenges and opportunities are there for the Michigan auto industry in the next five to 10 years?

Talent, talent and talent. Did I say talent? We must have the right talent here in Michigan in the right place at the right time to enable the new vehicle technologies of the future to be fully embraced and implemented into mainstream product (vehicles). Having the right people is everything. We are actively working on this aspect of the strategic plan.