chapter 8: trim

Moving the Assembly Line Outside

Photographer: Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com
Richard Owusu.

Like the captain of a sinking ship, Richard Owusu was still at the bridge a month after Chrysler declared bankruptcy and closed his factory, Jefferson North. As the plant manager looked out the expansive windows of his second-floor office in June 2009, he was disturbed. The tree-lined promenade that led to the plant's gazebo-style entrance had become wild and overgrown. Weeds and grass obscured the plant's tall, whitewashed walls. Jefferson North -- once a source of strength and beacon of hope for Chrysler and Detroit -- looked abandoned.

Something had to be done. So on a Friday afternoon, the bald and compact plant manager called a meeting of the small crew that remained inside the shuttered factory -- about 50 people, mostly managers with a few hourly workers.

"We are family," Owusu told his staff in that hastily called meeting. "This is our home. It's not Chrysler's property, it is our property. So how do we, as a family, take care of our property?"

Owusu, 50, likes to say he grew up at Jefferson North. Actually, he grew up in Ghana in West Africa. His family immigrated to New York in 1976, when Richard was 13, and began chasing the American dream. A good student, Owusu had many job offers as he completed his Ivy League education at Columbia University. He chose Chrysler because he saw the auto industry as quintessentially American. "It's such a big part of this country," he said.

Boarded-up, abandoned homes line the streets near the Jefferson North facility in Detroit. Photograph by Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com Close

Boarded-up, abandoned homes line the streets near the Jefferson North facility in... Read More

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Boarded-up, abandoned homes line the streets near the Jefferson North facility in Detroit. Photograph by Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com

Reckoning to Revival: Rebuilding the U.S. Auto Industry
Ch. 1
Buckle Up: The Potholes Stay Where They Are
Ch. 2
Off-Road: The SUV's Ride From Peak to Valley
Ch. 3 Recalculating: Failed Talks and an Italian Wedding
Ch. 4 Rearview: Obstacles Closer Than They Appear
Ch. 5 Done Dealership: Collateral Damage to a War Hero
Ch. 6 Idling: Father and Son Live Through Layoffs
Ch. 7 Recall: Insourcing Workers From Detroit
Ch. 8 Trim: Moving the Assembly Line Outside
Ch. 9 High Gear: A New Jeep Every Minute
Ch. 10 Differential: The Divide Over Wages
Ch. 11 Ignition: 'Isn't That What America Is All About?'
Post-Crash Site: Five Scenes of a New Life

He started at the bottom, as a salaried maintenance manager in Chrysler's brand new Jefferson North in 1991, before the first Grand Cherokee rolled off the line. His humble beginnings and relentless work ethic endeared him to line workers, whom he came to know on a first-name basis. "Richard is cool," said Phyllis Adams, 42, who works in the paint shop. "He came a long way from maintenance manager."

After 13 years climbing the ladder at Jefferson North, Owusu left for a couple of years to take assignments elsewhere in Chrysler. When he returned as plant manager in 2006, it was a joyous homecoming. "I was literally the son returning back home," he said. "The whole workforce really rallied around me." But by June 2009, Owusu's home was derelict, much like the boarded-up houses that surround the plant on Detroit's impoverished east side. The plan -- the hope -- was that the 1,400 workers laid off on May 4 would return before the summer was out. He didn't want them to see their home looking like this.

There was no money in the budget for landscaping, Owusu explained; that had been made clear by Garberding, Chrysler's beleaguered purchasing chief. So if they wanted to put their house in order, it was up to them.

Graphic: Jefferson Flourishes Amid a Shrinking Detroit

On Monday morning, the lawn patrol went into action on their 183-acre (74-hectare) home. "Everybody brought in whatever they had," Owusu said. "Lawn mowers, weed whackers, a couple who were farmers brought in tractors, a couple of guys who loved trimming trees brought in chain saws."

What Owusu envisioned as a one-day job ended up taking an entire week. "We cut the grass three times just to get it to look decent," Owusu said, laughing. "This was a lot of work, and mind you, us management guys, we don't usually get our hands dirty."

To cover all that ground, the crew organized into small teams and doled out assignments. Some trimmed trees, some trimmed bushes, while others hauled away the limbs and twigs. Some cut grass, others raked, others bagged.

"We just put our assembly process to lawn cutting."

"The reality was, yes, we were a bankrupt company, but I wanted to create a perception that we were coming back," Owusu said.

A few of the workers brought barbecue grills from home and each hard day's work ended with a cookout in the parking lot. Over hot dogs and burgers, Owusu could see the mood change among his new grounds crew.

"It helped us tremendously," he said. "It brought us together, working on a common goal other than building vehicles. And the results were immediate. We could look out and say, `Wow, we've transformed this place."'

Unable to afford a lawn care team, Chrysler employees themselves cleaned up the yard at the Jefferson North facility. Photographs courtesy Chrysler

Unable to afford a lawn care team, Chrysler employees themselves cleaned up the yard at the Jefferson North facility. Photographs courtesy Chrysler

It also was the first sign that the bankruptcy had changed people, Garberding said. There was more focus on "we" and less on "me." More camaraderie, less conflict.

"It changed a lot of people's attitudes and I would say that's been at least as important as the things that a person can count," Garberding said.

When the workers returned July 26, they walked through the gates of a plant that looked as if it had never closed. Owusu was there to greet them by name and shake their hands. "People were joyous," he said.

Soon after they arrived, Owusu called a town hall meeting of the entire workforce, blue collar and white collar. He explained that the new bosses from Fiat (F) had their own manufacturing process and it required a blindingly clean plant.

"We cleaned the outside of the property, but the inside needs a lot of cleaning, too," he told them. "So as a workforce, that's what we have to do."

Owusu shut down production for three days and handed out mops, buckets and washrags. "A lot of soap, a lot of water, a lot of scrubbing," Owusu recalled.

As all of them, including Owusu, scrubbed the grime off the place, optimism grew. "We figured if we were cleaning up and getting the grass cut," said Adams, the paint-shop worker, "that must mean they're reopening the plant permanently. And boom, they did."

At the end of August, Owusu was called to headquarters as director of manufacturing engineering. Despite the promotion, he was devastated.

"I felt like this was my family and I don't want to leave them," he said.

He consoled himself with the satisfaction that he had restored confidence in a workforce that had felt defeated by Chrysler's capitulation to Chapter 11. "As the leader of the plant at that time, I had to show my people that there was no fear," said Owusu, who now oversees the paint shops in all of Chrysler's assembly plants. "I felt like we were definitely going to come back."

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