Frankiewicz Is Driving Force

May 20, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — As a young boy growing up in northern Ohio, Walter Frankiewicz's career path was charted at an early age.

He loved math and science and loved tinkering with things around the house. On one occasion he rewired the home stereo system, running wires throughout the entire house so he would never miss a beat.

"I loved my music in every room of the house," Frankiewicz says with a chuckle as he recalls his youth and desire to become an engineer.

That engineering career — which started 21 years ago with a job at the former Bendix Corp. in his hometown of Elyria, Ohio — led Frankiewicz to West Michigan last fall when he was named president of Benteler Automotive Corp's. Grand Rapids-based North American operations.

Frankiewicz, who resides in Troy in suburban Detroit and maintains regular weekly office hours at Benteler's downtown Grand Rapids headquarters, joined Benteler from Arvin-Meritor Automotive, where he was vice president and general manager of the firm's Worldwide Braking Systems business unit.

Recruited by a third party, Frankiewicz initially wasn't interested in the position. He warmed up to Benteler as he learned more about the company and the professional challenges it offered. They include better positioning the company globally and meeting automakers' needs for their suppliers to accommodate the modular assembly of vehicles, a process where parts systems are easily installed on the assembly line.

Benteler's modular assembly capability is one of the things that eventually drew Frankiewicz to Benteler.

"Benteler, in my mind, represents an opportunity to be engaged with a company and a process that can be very successful," Frankiewicz said.

Benteler Automotive produces chassis components and exhaust and impact management systems for U.S. and foreign automakers. The company employs about 2,000 at its three manufacturing facilities in Grand Rapids and northern Indiana, as well as 1,700 people at facilities in Mexico.

The 41-year-old Frankiewicz's career began in 1980, following his graduation from Ohio State University with a degree in electronics engineering — a five-year program he pushed himself to complete in four years.

His first job out of college was in the quality control department at Bendix. Over the years Frankiewicz worked his way up through the ranks, taking on a variety of positions in engineering, management and sales and marketing. They led to his appointment in 1995 as vice president of engineering at what had become, through an earlier acquisition, Allied Signal.

He left Allied Signal two years later to join Rockwell as general manager for worldwide braking systems. It was a position that, for the first time in his career, gave Frankiewicz responsibility for an entire business unit, not just a department.

"It was a great career move for me, and it was something I knew very, very well," he said.

At Rockwell, Frankiewicz gained valuable experience when he became involved in the acquisition of Lucas Varity, a maker of braking systems for heavy vehicles. He calls the period his biggest career break because it got him involved in strategic planning issues and working with foreign subsidiaries to mold the two companies together and map out the future.

"It was great. To watch things come together was very rewarding. It was the most rewarding experience of my career," he said.

Then came the offer from Benteler Automotive, where Frankiewicz has set his sights on growing the company into a global player and instilling a sense of "customer intimacy." The value follows the trend among auto suppliers for more than a decade to become more involved in working directly with vehicle manufacturers to develop products.

"Our product is us and we've got to take ourselves to the industry," Frankiewicz said. "We've got to make ourselves a partner of the customer. We've got to make ourselves inseparable."        

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