It is an island surrounded by equal parts blight and potential. It is an example of all that Detroit was and now aspires to be.
The new Flex-N-Gate plant is in the shadow of the rebuilding Detroit skyline, and across the street from a shuttered technical high school. The 454,000 sq. ft. plant is sleek and modern. It is what owner Shad Khan wanted to achieve when he worked with officials from Ford Motor Company and state and local government officials to secure land and incentives needed to turn a vacant lot in a nearly vacant neighborhood into a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.
“If you’re not growing, you’re done,” said Khan in a promotional video following the facility’s opening in October 2018. “We have the tools here, with the city of Detroit, to change lives.”
Start with a vision
Flex-N-Gate isn’t a familiar name to most consumers, but they are a huge part of the automotive industry. Flex-N-Gate supplies metal and plastic components for cars and trucks. The portfolio includes everything from headlight assemblies to dashboard components to the truck bumpers manufactured at Flex-N-Gate’s new Detroit plant—in particular, the new Ford Ranger.
This versatile and global reach in the automotive industry makes Flex-N-Gate the seventh-largest automotive supplier in North America, with $6.5 billion in global sales. They have 31 plants in the U.S., largely concentrated in the Midwest, with an additional 13 locations in Canada and six in Mexico. While 60% of their contracts are with the three major U.S. auto manufacturers (Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler), Flex-N-Gate works with almost every manufacturer.
Bill Ford, chairman of the automobile company that bears his family name, wanted one of his suppliers to invest in Detroit’s inner city. Khan and Flex-N-Gate stepped up. Government leaders from Detroit and the state of Michigan delivered millions in tax incentives to get the project started, and Khan and his team saw a potential to deliver something more than just auto parts.
“The vision was to do something revolutionary and break the cycle of poverty,” Khan told a gathering of 300 industry leaders at Manufacturing in America on March 20 in Detroit in a discussion with Raj Batra, president of Siemens’ Digital Factory division. “If going to go to the inner city, you need to hire local people, and it’s a very different population than even 10 miles away. The solution again is technology. It gives us a competitive weapon. We can produce a quality product.”
From the ground up
The job of building a manufacturing plant, a trained workforce and a productive operation from the remains of a residential neighborhood fell to the Flex-N-Gate team led by Bill Beistline, the plant’s vice president of manufacturing. “It was a greenfield project—new equipment, new employees, new everything,” Beistline said. “The plant was laid out in an L-shape, and we have the ability to expand on two sides of our facility.”
Flex-N-Gate decided to standardize the plant’s technology around hydraulic presses, injection molding machines and Siemens automation. That gave Flex-N-Gate the ability to produce parts efficiently. The next challenge was staffing.
“We promised the city 450 jobs, and we have 700 today,” Beistline said. “We have more than met our commitment, but it’s been a growing experience with our labor force.”
Working with non-profit organization Focus: Hope, which provides community-based advocacy, job training and family support programs, Flex-N-Gate set about finding and training local workers, including workers from the neighborhood. “About one-third had no manufacturing background. We set up the curriculum, training and job placement, and we made a concerted effort to hire Detroiters,” Beistline said. “We had classes of about 24 people, so we were able to get to know people. Temp agencies helped fill in the blanks.
There still is a high level of job churn at Flex-N-Gate, but the workforce is diverse in many ways. The age range of workers is from 25 to 74, and ther is a nearly even split between male and female workers. That’s an areas Khan recognizes as important as manufacturers struggle with a tight labor market.
“If looking for great people, half of those people are going to be women,” Khan told the attendees of the Manufacturing in America event. “The first really thinking is that the work has to be gender neutral and physically neutral. Anybody can do the job. Work has to be designed where there doesn’t have to be any biases.”
It’s also an area where manufacturing as a whole, and Flex-N-Gate in particular, has more room to grow. “We’re at the point now where most of issues we have now are people-related,” Beistline said. “It’s difficult to find technically competent people. That’s something not unique to Detroit. But we’ve got to keep churning.”
Detroit is seen by many as the epicenter for the seismic shift in American manufacturing. When the auto industry struggled and jobs began disappearing, Detroit fell into disrepair and then bankruptcy. Now as Detroit works to reinvent itself and rebuild its infrastructure, its looks to a more diverse economic structure. The auto industry, and suppliers such as Flex-N-Gate, still have a major role to play.
“The workplace is going to have to embrace change. It’s not your father’s workplace,” Khan said. “This country was built on middle class jobs. The most value-added job you can do is manufacturing. Every country tries to develop focuses on manufacturing. Why? Because it develops wealth.
“What is manufacturing? It’s value-added,” he added. “I really advocated that the minimum wage should be higher, maybe $20 an hour. It will push more automation so everyone working is adding more value.”
But Khan is focused on customer value, not technology. “Technology is a solution looking for a problem. First you have to find a problem you can solve, and then bring the solutions to solve the problem,” Khan said. “Look at this town and what happened. Look at General Motors and some of challenges they had when Japanese [automakers] started coming into the U.S. Their solution was Saturn. They were by far the biggest purchaser of [stamping] presses. They were buying all these solutions without identifying the problem. Their biggest problem was union relations, so they weren’t able to focus on competition.
“Technology without people is meaningless,” Khan added. “You want a culture of entrepreneurial empowerment. Over time, you develop it.”
Flex-N-Gate is one of just a handful of new manufacturers along the I-94 corridor on Detroit’s West Side. As the city works to champion a new vision for the area, more are coming. “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Beistline said. “Detroit is being revitalized. There is interest there.”