By Arjen Bongard and Bettina Mayer, Automotive News Europe
With an annual budget of $20 billion, you would think Birgit Behrendt, Ford of Europe's vice president of purchasing, has enough money to keep suppliers happy.
Behrendt, who heads Ford of Europe's 500-member purchasing department, has had to implement a controversial Ford program that forces suppliers to agree to Ford's terms and conditions and requires parts makers to accept relatively big price cuts.
As a result, Ford had not been popular with suppliers.
But Behrendt has spent years rebuilding relations with suppliers. She has gained the respect of parts makers and the admiration of her bosses -- two reasons Behrendt is the 2007 Automotive News Europe Woman of the Year.
"Birgit has been very fair with suppliers," says Valeo CEO Thierry Morin. "She achieved goals that seemed unattainable."
And, Morin says, "She did it with a smile."
Colin Carter, board member for customer centers and sales at cooling supplier Behr GmbH, appreciates Behrendt's openness.
"She doesn't hesitate when it comes to giving you a call to talk directly to you about a problem," Carter says. "We also can call her if we have a problem or some questions. I appreciate this type of one-to-one communication."
Ford executives acknowledge the major role Behrendt and her purchasing team have played in turning around the European operations.
"She brings a fantastic focus and persistence to purchasing," says Lewis Booth, Ford of Europe chairman. He credits Behrendt to a major extent with improving Ford's relations with its suppliers.
Behrendt, 48, joined Ford in Cologne, Germany, directly after school.
"I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do," she says. "I wanted to do a good job and be rewarded for it. I never realised how much fun it would be."
She moved up the ranks at Ford, starting as an apprentice, doing a stint at Ford's global headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, and eventually being promoted to her current job in 2004.
Behrendt sees improving supplier relations as one of her main accomplishments. For several years Ford has ranked near the bottom in an annual Automotive News Europe survey of relations between suppliers and automakers. But the company has been improving its standing in the supplier poll.
"There were times when no one wanted to be on a Ford project," Behrendt says. "But a supplier CEO told me last year that it's fun to work with Ford. That's great for us."
A good working relationship with suppliers makes it easier to take waste out of the system, improve operations and lower costs, she says.
"When you look at the improvements at Ford of Europe, a lot is because of contributions from our supply base."
Behrendt says Ford's relentless demands for price reductions, which are seen by many suppliers as overly tough, are logical under current market conditions.
"We're not just pushing for our own good," she says. "We have a flat industry, and it's a question of survival for each of us. You have to be focused on product, but you also have to still be very, very focused on cost. The customer isn't willing to pay for many of these things."
'Suppliers are really key'
Changes at Ford affect Behrendt's purchasing operations as well. Take the makeup of Ford's European operations. For the past decade, Ford has integrated purchasing for the Ford brand, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo. Now, Aston Martin has been sold and soon Jaguar and Land Rover also will no longer be part of the group.
Behrendt says the Volvo-Ford purchasing relationship has been strong and will continue to be so. "We are still going to work extremely closely together," she says.
Other challenges facing Behrendt are rising commodities prices and pending European legislation that will force all cars to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions.
She expects commodities prices to start easing a bit by the end of the year. The CO2 legislation will force carmakers to make even more fuel-efficient cars. And that, says Behrendt, makes a good working relationship with suppliers even more crucial.
"We need to make sure we leverage the knowledge and the technologies our suppliers offer," she says. "Suppliers are really key."
What are her goals for the next five years? Behrendt sets two priorities.
1. Deal efficiently with current products so there will be more time and attention for future products.
2. Further improve supplier relations.
Behrendt says she wants Ford to become "the customer of choice" for suppliers. "Five years from now, I would hope that every single supplier has realized that it's really, really fun to work with Ford.
First job: Apprentice at Ford Werke in Cologne, Germany
Current job: Ford of Europe, vice president of purchasing in Cologne
Previous job: Director of global body and exterior purchasing at Ford in Dearborn, Michigan"
From Automotive News Europe (A Crain publication)