Auto supplier fine-tunes nonprofit coat-making process

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Automotive seat-maker Johnson Controls Inc. is bringing the efficiencies of the auto industry to a local nonprofit group.

The supplier’s Plymouth-based seating unit last year chose to give a $1,000 corporate donation to the Empowerment Plan, a local nonprofit that makes coats for the homeless that double as sleeping bags. But when Johnson Controls officials toured the company’s space in a Corktown business incubator, they realized the coat-making process was similar to what its own production workers do to stitch together car and truck seats.

Beginning in March, Johnson Controls brought in experts to help better train Empowerment Plan’s workers, and let the nonprofit’s employees tour its seat-making operations. The result: The company reduced assembly time by 73 percent (from 5.2 hours to 1.4 hours); reduced the fabric needed to make a coat by 20 percent; and cut the cost nearly in half (from $114.90 for the old coat to $58.80 for the new coat).

“We don’t have too many supporters in the area where we can go and see their facility,” Veronika Scott, the Empowerment Plan’s CEO and founder, said in an interview. “Having a very well-recognized brand helping us is really exciting.”

Scott founded the Empowerment Plan in 2011 and says they’ve distributed 10,000 coats to the homeless over the last 3 1/2years. She says she’s looking to make 60,000 coats over the next 3-5 years and hopes to employ about 600 people. Most of the company’s roughly 20 employees are homeless.

“The heart they have to help the homeless was infectious for us,” said Eric Michalak, chief engineer of advanced product development for Johnson Controls’ Automotive Seating. “They’re not just giving (the homeless) a product, they’re trying to change their lives and make them better.”

Michalak said his team broke down the Empowerment Plan’s assembly process step-by-step, taking photos and examining the fabrics and sewing techniques they used. The nonprofit’s employees also got the chance to tour Johnson Controls’ seating unit and talk with experts in the automotive space.

“It was a really good interaction,” Michalak said. “We helped out where we could.”

Scott said the interaction was crucial.

Her goal is that the Empowerment Plan becomes the first step on a journey back to full-time employment for the workers. Many have moved on to jobs with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Quicken Loans and other companies. Scott said the interaction with Johnson Controls could lead to jobs with the supplier in the future.

Another added bonus from the coat-making efficiencies: Scott has been able to end production at 3 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. With the extra two hours, the nonprofit brought in a financial literacy program, helped workers with GED classes and set up other programs.

Johnson Controls is one of the world’s largest auto suppliers.

Its auto business has 240 plants worldwide that make automotive seating, overhead systems, floor consoles, door panels and instrument panels. Its Michigan facilities include a 750,000-square-foot campus in Holland with more than 1,000 employees and a Plymouth Technical campus with over 500,000 square feet of office space and more than 1,000 employees within three buildings.

“When you get in a large company, it makes us realize what we started off wanting to do – make a difference,” Michalak said. “We help them with product development, but they help us with a feeling of doing something good for the community.”

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