Howes: Lear’s Simoncini delivered; readies another act?

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Matt Simoncini soon will be retiring as CEO of Lear Corp., but the 56-year-old Detroit native isn’t going away.

He can’t. His hometown needs him. It needs the driven style behind the generally approachable charm. And it needs the acumen that delivered impressive financial results to Lear’s board room — all of which makes him a rainmaker in a community that knows just how valuable that can be.

He says he was not pushed out by the board, a fair question for a guy leaving nearly a decade before the customary retirement age. They “wanted me to stay,” he told The Detroit News in an interview Thursday, less than an hour after the company confirmed he would retire in February and remain an adviser to his successor, Ray Scott, 52, until the end of next year.

“It was time,” continued Simoncini, Lear’s CFO before ascending to the top job in September 2011. “The company’s in a great spot. I had an inkling about the middle of the year that it was time to go. Eleven years in the C-suite can be a real grind. The best time to leave a company is when you’re on top, and we’re on top.”

Consider the metrics delivered during Simoncini’s tenure, cited by Lear’s non-executive chairman, Henry D.G. Wallace: market capitalization surged to nearly $12 billion from $4 billion; global sales touched $20 billion, up from $14 billion; headcount increased to roughly160,000 worldwide from 100,000.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Wallace said in an interview. “There’s nothing else behind this, and I can categorically state that. The board couldn’t be happier with Matt.”

And by the standards of the global auto industry, much less the Detroit automotive ecosystem, Lear under Simoncini has been an equal-opportunity performer. Even as it delivered quarter after quarter of impressive results, the Southfield-based supplier that joined the Chapter 11 bankruptcy parade in 2009 also became a corporate stalwart backing Detroit’s attempt to reinvent itself.

Simoncini is active in community organizations and fundraising efforts, generally far more than many of his contemporaries who pocket equally large salaries and bonuses. A passionate love of opera, sparked by his parents’ personal renditions of favorite arias, drew him in later years to the board of Michigan Opera Theatre.

And he’s continued Lear’s support of efforts in the city — spreading corporate philanthropic dollars around to finance a $5 million rehab of six city parks, repairing two Olympic-sized pools in Rouge Park, renovating an old cigar factory on Capitol Park into Lear’s Innovation Center, serving as presenting sponsor of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

Not that any of that will quiet a rumor mill that tends to grind even faster when the guy walking away from it all is nearly a decade younger than the typical retirement age in the go-go global auto space. And when Ford Motor Co. in May cashiered its 56-year-old CEO who’d just delivered the Blue Oval its most profitable year in history, it’s fair to ask.

Add politics? Fuhgeddaboutit. With an election year just around the corner, it’s no secret in political circles that the state’s most powerful Democrat, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, is quietly working behind the scenes to draft a challenge to former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer’s bid for the Democratic nomination.

In the wake of the Legislature’s defeat of auto insurance reform backed by the mayor, Duggan recently used a small group dinner at the Manoogian Mansion to urge attorney Mark Bernstein, chairman of the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents, to reconsider his decision to drop his pursuit of the Democratic nomination.

Simoncini’s choice to announce his plans now, a year before the general election, is only likely to fuel speculation of possible political aspirations. He’s young enough; he combines humble Detroit roots with success in a cutthroat, global industry; he’s made lots of friends through his and Lear’s philanthropy; and he has financial savvy, a record of making tough decisions and a good relationship with the re-elected mayor.

“I don’t see that in the cards,” Simoncini replied when asked whether he is mulling a gubernatorial run. “It’s just a life plan.”

Life plans change. For most seasoned political hands, an answer like that is a non-denial denial easily changed to yes should certain conditions change, as they often do. Or should the right people persuade the right person that now’s the right time to open a new chapter.

This won’t be the last Detroit and Michigan see of Matt Simoncini.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.