Julie Nguyen Brown: Motown Tycoon With A Difference

She's not your typical auto-parts supplier. First, she's a woman. Second, she's a Vietnamese refugee. But over the past four years, Julie Nguyen Brown has built a $25 million company called Plastech Engineered Products Inc. out of two parts-makers she pulled from the scrap heap. Even though she has earned Detroit's respect, the old-boy insensitivities die hard. "She's an aggressive, shrewd businessman," says Chrysler Purchasing Executive Joe E. Harris, without a hint of irony. "A lot of times, you don't find that in these guys."

Brown, 42, is used to breaking through barriers. Born in French-occupied Vietnam, the daughter of a petroleum engineer, she left the war-ravaged land at 16 and came to Ypsilanti, Mich., as a high school exchange student. Although her English was spotty, Brown eventually earned a computer-science degree from Tulane University. She lost her visa in 1972 and had to return to Vietnam. But when Saigon collapsed three years later, she returned to the U.S.--this time as a refugee in the belly of a U.S. military transport plane. She landed a job at Ford Motor Co. as a product-design engineer and soon noticed that the company's suppliers were producing shoddy parts. Brown figured she could do better.

In 1988, she got her chance. Brown bought Caro Plastic Corp. and Dynaplast Corp. for a total of $8 million, with help from a Michigan minority development loan. The companies, which made plastic parts such as door handles and wheel covers, were both in financial trouble. But by cutting employees, buying new machinery, and improving service, Brown turned them around. Her advice for her industry: "We have to be serious about cutting costs and not just give it lip-service." A survivor like Brown can differentiate between tough talk and action.

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