Leaders and employees at the General Motors Components Holdings plant in Lockport have a lot on their minds.

They are determined to launch their manufacturing of thermal products for new GM vehicles as flawlessly as possible. They have worked vigorously to cut scrap rates and are eager to win more business.

No one is taking anything for granted, but after the Upper Mountain Road plant went through highly publicized struggles in its recent past under Delphi, employees and managers are hopeful of solidifying their status within GM.

“I can tell you right now, the way I feel about the way things are going right now is very positive,” said Michael Branch, who has worked at the plant since 1999 and is now shop chairman of United Auto Workers Local 686 Unit 1. “I think General Motors and the UAW are working more in a partnership mode, and I can tell you from a site perspective, that is definitely how we work here.”

The Lockport auto parts manufacturing plant has survived lots of change – and at times, uncertainty – in the past decade and a half. The complex switched affiliations from GM to Delphi Corp., endured Delphi’s slog through bankruptcy, reduced its workforce, and rejoined GM in late 2009 as part of the automaker’s Components Holdings subsidiary. (Delphi still operates a technical center at the Lockport site.) During the most trying times with Delphi, questions swirled about whether the plant would survive, due to its poor financial performance.

Pat Curtis, who became the GM Lockport plant manager about four years ago, said the Lockport site’s employees have shown they can overcome adversity. “We’re very good at taking on challenges and winning, and I think that’s where this site rises to the occasion.”

Auto manufacturing plants constantly try to attract new work to secure their futures and their employees’ jobs. GM Lockport was awarded a combined $44 million in investment in 2012 and this year to support a number of product launches.

The Lockport site makes products for nearly every GM assembly plant in North America, including radiators, condensers, heater cores and HVAC modules. The complex employs about 1,550 people and makes a huge financial impact on the region.

GM Lockport’s new product launches are the plant’s focus, starting with the Chevrolet Impala. Next will come products for the full-size trucks, the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra. “That is by far the biggest product launch site this has seen probably in 10 years,” Curtis said. “It’s half our business, to be frank.”

GM Lockport will also supply products for the new Chevy Corvette, a star at Detroit’s auto show. Products for full-size SUVs such as the Tahoe, Suburban, Yukon and Yukon XL will launch in early 2014.

The Lockport complex on Upper Mountain Road is vast, with 2.8 million square feet. About 1.6 million square feet of that is being used for manufacturing.

Filling vacant space

Some of the vacant space is being used to store engines from a GM plant in St. Catharines, Ont., a task that spawned a dozen jobs at the Lockport site. “It would have been done by an outside company, outside warehouse, so we’re saving the company money by utilizing what we have,” Curtis said. “We’re trying to look at ways we can add value to the company, whether or not it’s for the thermal business. We’re really trying to open up our horizons.”

Similarly, Curtis says the plant’s injection molding lines are a capability GM could tap into for more than just the Lockport site’s current product lineup.

Technology and investment are only part of the story at the Lockport site. Both Curtis and Branch, the UAW leader, say the Lockport plant’s employees have benefited from adopting the “team” concept about two years ago. The plant has nearly 90 teams – some as small as five or six employees, some as large as 15 to 20 workers – and each one’s leader comes from the team.

GM Lockport sets goals for the teams to achieve, and the team develops the ideas for how to meet those objectives, said James Fennell, plant personnel director. In each work area is a five-paneled white board where information is posted and employees gather for updates. The boards keep attention on five topics: safety, people, quality, responsiveness and cost.

“They use these boards every single day, every single shift,” Branch said. “It’s a tool to empower the employees to make sure that they’re making improvements that they want, that they need for the betterment of the site and the membership, right there. It’s a visible thing.”

The team method allows workers to introduce ideas and put them into action, Curtis said. “In the past, it may have been an engineer that went down and said, ‘We think we can do this by changing this.’ Today, the team member says, ‘Hey, I think this can be better. Let’s involve the engineer, let’s involve everybody and let’s come up with the best solution.’”

Mary Ward-Schiffert, a team leader for about one and a half years, says the system “helps to motivate and drive my area.

“What we’ve found is, we make sure that everybody’s involved every day on decisions about what we’re doing,” she said. “When you feel like you have power in your job, it makes you even more motivated the next day to do an even better job.”

Focus is on improvement

Curtis said he feels confident about the quality of products coming out of the GM Lockport plant. “What I tell every new hire that comes in is that safety is priority No. 1, the second is quality. The phrase I like to use is, we ship our reputation every day. What I mean by that is, if we send good parts day in and day out, we have a great reputation. One bad part, you ruin your reputation.”

Away from the production floor, GM Lockport is putting all of its employees through a training exercise known as a “simulated work environment.” Workers from departments across the complex – not just production – go through the daylong experience together, six at a time. As the training day unfolds, the team members learn to work together, acting on suggestions to carry out an assigned task in a more efficient, less strenuous way.

“It focuses on the team approach to continuous improvement,” Curtis said. “It’s a real eye-opener for everybody.”

While GM Lockport has lots of new work to prepare for, its managers and employees are also looking further ahead.

“Everybody seems to be striving for the same goal, to get new business,” Ward-Schiffert said. “We all talk about that all the time: new business, new business. We want to be the best. We want our customers to come looking for us. We want to be known for making the best products.”

Curtis said the plant has “a good business plan for the next three years; in fact these programs go out five years. But in the out years, that’s where we need to start developing opportunities. And that’s what we’re doing now.”

GM Lockport hosted a visit from a joint GM-UAW “sourcing review team,” which looks at locations’ capabilities for future work. Favorable reviews from that team matter.

“There were some members on that sourcing team that had been here over the past couple of years, and they said that the improvements and the changes they’ve seen out there have been absolutely fantastic,” Branch said. “And the ones that haven’t been here before were very impressed with everything they saw out there.”

Winning more new work would help fortify a plant that pays big local dividends: $85.8 million in wages, $16.7 million in payroll taxes and $915,000 in property taxes, according to GM.

On more solid ground

“I think they’re a whole lot better off than they’ve been in a long time there,” said Arthur Wheaton, an auto manufacturing expert at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Buffalo.

Part of the improved picture comes from GM’s stronger sales and its ability to sell those vehicles at a “reasonable price,” he said. The plant has also established a more-competitive labor cost structure, and its workers have gone through an “emotional event” like Delphi’s bankruptcy that carries its own lessons. “All the employees know it’s not always gravy, there can be tough times.”

And Lockport’s was one of the few Delphi plants GM chose to keep, Wheaton said. “They were one of the survivors for being a unionized plant in the system.”

Both Branch and Curtis say a good working relationship at the plant between management and the union is essential to winning more business.

“We do have common goals,” Curtis said. “How we get there has been maybe the difficulty in the past. And I think that we are much better at working together to figure out how to get there.”

Last year, the Lockport plant worked aggressively to reduce scrap, improving by 30 percent from the year before. Branch said employee involvement was key. “If you lay out the challenge and let them make their own decisions on how to reduce scrap, it happens. It just happens.”

The Lockport plant improved its scores under GM’s Global Manufacturing System, which tracks plants’ performance. The site started 2012 about 46 percent compliant with GMS, and finished the year at 89 percent compliant, Curtis said. The target this year is to be greater than 95 percent compliant.

Curtis said the Lockport plant has a decades-long heritage to protect and build on, with some fourth-generation employees in its workforce. How does he view the Lockport plant’s position within GM?

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Curtis said. “We have a lot of challenges ahead, it’s a competitive environment. But again, we’re going to be open to do whatever we can to support the corporation, be flexible and work together to come up with solutions.”