How Michael Heneka turned around a transient culture at Faurecia North America

Michael Heneka

Michael Heneka, president, Faurecia North America

Michael Heneka runs the North American operations for an automotive component manufacturer. But when he first arrived, the challenges he faced had much more to do with airplanes and passports.

Heneka is now the president of Faurecia North America, part of Paris-based Faurecia. In his current position, he oversees more than 10,000 employees working in a business unit that generated $3.4 billion in sales last year. But when he arrived at the company five years ago, he was president of Faurecia’s North American interiors division.

At that point, Faurecia was still relatively new to the North American marketplace, and shipped a number of management-level employees to the U.S. for short-term tours of duty. The result was cultural quicksand.

“We had diverse staffing from all over the world,” Heneka says. “We had people from Spain, Mexico, France and Germany, so it was a bit transient. There were those who would be here for a short period of time and then move on. The difficulty in that approach was that you lack accountability if you feel you’re not going to be here for a long period of time.”

Not only were the short-term managers causing the company to suffer from a lack of accountability, the effect seeped downward to the subordinate levels. Heneka found lower-level employees were less inclined to see projects through to the desired outcome if they knew the boss was only going to stick around for a few more months.

“What I wanted to do was instill some sense of ownership in the team that was here,” Heneka says. “I wanted to lengthen the time period they would stay here in North America.”

Heneka also wanted team members to experience a higher level of engagement in the company’s culture during their lengthened stay. In short, the entire system of assigning, indoctrinating and training the people who would shape Faurecia’s presence in North America had to change.

Flick the first domino

Heneka needed to correct Faurecia’s cultural issues starting with corporate policy, then moving into the areas of training and communication. One of the first areas he addressed was extending the minimum length of an assignment in North America.

“What I didn’t like, and what I didn’t want, was an 18-month individual,” Heneka says. “I don’t think you can be held accountable for 18 months. So I asked for and received the authority to ensure that people were here for three to five years. That way, if something was started, the same person would be there for the finish and held accountable for it. If you’re going to be a part of the global growth and move from country to country, division to division, a minimum stay would be three years, and ideally five. Once we did that, we got rid of people working for a few months at a time, and it worked out much better. People lost that sense that, ‘My boss is going to be gone in six months, so I don’t have to worry about that.’”

With new rules on the books, Heneka turned his attention to getting his employees to understand and embrace a new cultural direction. It’s a step that required numerous meetings and fielding many questions about the company’s future direction.

He kicked off his communication by organizing everyone in his division’s technical center for a question-and-answer session.

“I told them who I was, where we were going, what I was trying to accomplish, and then I started to ask them questions,” he says. “I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve found the more I listen, the more I learn. I don’t learn a lot when I’m talking, so I tried to listen, find out what the issues were and report that.”

After the initial session, Heneka hit the road, holding lunch meetings and on-site forums, creating rounds of dialogue between upper management and workers in different locations.

“I’d go to each plant every couple of days as we were launching, seeing where we were going and where I could help,” Heneka says. “I wanted to see where our customer support was, or lack of support, so that I could help our facilities with the OEMs we were supplying.”

Faurecia was rolling out a number of new products in the same time frame, which added an extra layer of complexity to the process of ratcheting up the engagement level of Faurecia team members. Two months of traveling and communication gave Heneka enough time to focus the people in his division on the company’s culture, and how it would factor in the plans for the future. But he felt large-scale adoption and understanding didn’t occur until the four-to-six month time frame.

“We had to work fast,” Heneka says. “Within two months, I felt like I knew where we needed to go, but it was four or six months before we were pretty much on track with regard to where we were going. The plants still had some work to do because it can’t happen all at once, but within that six-month time period, we were focused and on track regarding what we needed to do.”

If you want to take your company in a new cultural direction, or find a new way to reinforce an established culture, Heneka says you need to show everyone in the organization why their work is significant to upper management, and how management supports them in their work.

“Most people simply want to know what is happening, where are we going, what is your goal, what are you doing to support us,” he says. “The more open you can be with what you’d like to do and what the company wants to do, you’ll find that people are much more willing to participate. They may not necessarily agree with everything you’re trying to accomplish, but knowing makes it a lot simpler. Once they know where we’re going and understand it, they’ll pull towards it because then they’re part of the solution.”

In a situation in which you’re trying to build a case and stimulate dialogue, you first need to open the dialogue, then listen to feedback, then look for solutions based on consensus whenever possible.

“The days of autocratic rule are over,” Heneka says. “There isn’t a better example of that than Alan Mulally at Ford. He made all of his direct reports part of the direction in which he wanted the company to move, and made them part of the solution. They’re all moving in one direction, and that’s really what I wanted to accomplish here. I wanted us to all pull in the same direction, and so far we’ve been very successful the last few years.”

Sustain success

After the initial rollout of his go-forward plan, and as he took over the entire Faurecia North American footprint four years ago, Heneka has needed to keep the momentum going. So he has looked to Holland.

Holland, Mich., that is.

On the other side of the state from Detroit, Faurecia maintains a design center, separate from the manufacturing channels of the company. In the Holland design center, Heneka picks the brains of some of Faurecia’s top North American idea makers and has come up with some new ideas for how to maintain the momentum of the company’s culture of engagement and inclusion moving forward.

“What they do there is think about innovation and what we can do in the future,” Heneka says. “We have them come in and show their innovations to our manufacturing facilities, the technical centers. We show them where we want to go, the types of products we want moving forward, and continue to bring suggestions.”

It’s one of the ways Heneka keeps the questions and answers flowing on a frequent basis.

“We have Q&A sessions where we’re asking everyone present what they think, what could we be doing better,” he says. “We invite that. Our four process groups are completely different. What would be exciting to someone in our emission controls group may not be so exciting to our seating group. But sometimes that collaboration of those four different product groups really brings some innovation. And that’s what we’re trying to instill.”

Faurecia North America’s four product groups are interiors, exteriors, seating and emission controls.

The increased engagement of Faurecia employees in the company’s North American operations has yielded new innovations that the company has been able to implement on a larger scale.

“With the environmental awareness factor in the auto industry, where people need more green products, our innovation process has helped to develop wood-based products,” Heneka says. “In the past, we’d have finished a part with a coating or fabric, but now we’re exposing the wood-based look with some of our products. We gain a lightweight factor, we gain appearance, and that is something that came from our design group. It was out-of-the-box thinking regarding how we could make something different, lighter and greener.”

Heneka’s company is in an advantageous position regarding employee input, in that the people who work for Faurecia almost all drive cars, and therefore will likely come in contact with a Faurecia product in their vehicle at some point. But even if you don’t manufacture something that your employees use, you should still take advantage of the fact that everyone in your organization is a consumer, and can take a consumer’s mindset to visualizing your final product.

“All of our employees are connected with a car in some way or another,” Heneka says. “So their input is along the lines of ‘What would you like to see in a car?’ We have a new seat system coming out that is going to allow people to adjust their seats with their iPhone after taking a picture of themselves. So we bring our employees in and say ‘What do you think of this? Would you use it? Would your children use it?’ By getting their input, we have a really good market study within our own company.”

Ultimately, employees want to know that management is willing to work alongside them. They want to know that management will work as hard and as long as the people in at the front lines, and are willing to offer support when a problem arises.

“Employees want to know that you are there with them, that you’re willing to do what you’re asking them to do, that you’re going to be out at the plant late at night, even though you got up at five that morning,” Heneka says. “They want to know that you feel the pain when something happens and that you want to be a part of the solution. You can’t just be some guy in a corporate office. You have to be someone who is ready to help. I’m not the guy on the line trying to make a part, but I am there to help. Employees are going to notice that.”

How to reach: Faurecia North America, (248) 409-3500 or

The Heneka file

Born: Detroit

Education: Industrial engineering technology degree, Western Michigan University

History: After college, I went into the Marine Corps, not so much by choice, and after I got out, I got a job working for Charlie Gehringer, a former baseball player for the Tigers. He was running several manufacturing companies, and I ended up working for him for several years.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

I’ve learned a few. But one of the best is to always try to bring a solution to a problem. It’s easy to have someone come into your office and say, ‘We have a problem,’ but bring me three or four solutions and we’ll see what makes sense. Because if I have to solve everything, I don’t need those people working for me.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

You have to be willing to be part of a team. You have to be willing to spend the time that is needed. You can’t isolate yourself. You have to be available. And I think you have to want to complement people. You have to put your ego aside and understand what they’re doing. It’s about less ego and more listening.

What is your definition of success?

You have to put your family first. When I see someone in our plants who is ignoring that, I’d like that person to take care of their family. If that is successful, most other things will fall in place. Also, I’ve been reading some of C.S. Lewis’ books, and he was a pretty brilliant guy. He said, when you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen other doors, and to those who are still in the hall.

In other words, if you’ve chosen your path and are successful with it, if other people are on a different path, embrace them and acknowledge those differences. Once you do that, you will succeed and people will work a lot harder for you.