Simoncini leaving Lear amid steady growth

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Look no further than Lear Corp.’s balance sheet for evidence of departing CEO Matt Simoncini’s tenure at the Southfield-based auto supplier.

The financials say a lot about Simoncini, 56, who on Thursday said he would retire in February. He’ll leave an automotive seating and interior supplier that last year booked 80 percent more in net profits than when he became CEO in 2011.

Lear reported a $975 million profit last year on $18.6 billion in revenue amid a growing U.S. economy and record-setting U.S. vehicle sales. Lear shares have more than quadrupled since Simoncini ascended to the top job, an enviable accomplishment that no Detroit automaker can claim.

On Thursday, Lear shares closed up 0.34 percent at $174.20 — up 272 percent from their close of $46.84 on Oct. 1, 2011, one month after the former chief financial officer took the head job.

All of this has positioned the once-bankrupt company to be a leading automotive supplier globally, ready to contend with an industry poised to be radically reshaped by ride-sharing, electrification and autonomous cars.

Even the self-driving vehicles of the future will need seats, experts say. And Simoncini pushed Lear to lead in seating, while also using partnerships and acquisitions in the autonomous vehicle technology to boost the company’s value.

“The stock price really shows the confidence that the investment community has in seats and interiors,” said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. “Lear is at the front edge of technology. I think they’re on an excellent path, and they’ve been successful.”

Wall Street seems to agree. In a late October note following Lear’s third-quarter earnings beat, Barclays’ Brian Johnson wrote that he expects the company to continue to grow through 2018.

The company hasn’t been considered an innovator as much as a reliable high-quality producer in the field over the last several years. Simoncini outlined plans to grow its electronic systems and connectivity segments, which generated more buzz in the investment community.

“While we don’t think Lear is a first mover in either of these realms, we give Lear credit as an adept fast follower in these technologies,” Johnson wrote. That “could ultimately prove to be a profitable approach.”

Under Simoncini, Lear has scooped up or bought stakes in companies involved in everything from seating materials — such as Grupo Antolin’s automotive seating business acquired in April — to telematics and vehicle connectivity, courtesy of Lear’s acquisition of Troy-based Arada Systems in 2015.

Lear currently employs 63 percent more people than when Simoncini became CEO, with 159,000 people worldwide. That includes roughly 10,000 in the U.S. The company also is building a plant in Flint.

It currently employs about 1,000 people in Detroit and Highland Park through Integrated Manufacturing and Assembly, or IAM, a joint venture that manufactures and assembles automobile seats. And it has opened its Innovation Center in Detroit’s revived Capitol Park.

The momentum persuaded Simoncini to increase the company’s outlook for 2017 after Lear posted a third quarter profit of $295.2 million. The company expects to book $20.4 billion in sales this year, nearly $2 billion more than 2016.

“The investments that we have made to improve our cost structure and product capabilities will continue to drive market share gains and increasing earnings,” Simoncini said in the third quarter earnings release.

“It’s certainly been an environment where those who can see the path forward and do the right things can see benefits of the economy,” said David Kudla, CEO and chief investment strategist of Mainstay Capital Management LLC in Grand Blanc. “Lear has been a standout performer. They just did a good job strategically executing.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau