Global Fastener News

2001 FIN – Starting With High School Internship in Fasteners; Abraham Now CEO, Owner of Minority Manufacturer

November 16
00:00 2012

November 6, 2001 FIN – Jeanette Abraham would stand out at almost any fastener industry meeting. The CEO and president of automotive fastener manufacturer Detroit Heading LLC is a dynamic African American woman.

Abraham has more experience in the fastener industry than many attending industry meetings. As a senior at Pershing High School in Detroit she started in an internship program at General Motors in 1968. She spent 20 hours a week in school and 20 hours at GM learning production control, quality control, accounting, personnel and purchasing.
Her first post-high school job was secretary to the GM fastener buyer.
Abraham went on to earn a bachelors degree, attending Wayne State University in the evenings, and a masters in human relations from Central Michigan University. Attending classes and studying in the evenings after buying fasteners all day was strenuous, she remembered. “I worked for it – so I appreciate it.”
In addition to fasteners, she bought “every part on a vehicle from raw materials for plastic parts, chassis structure and rubber parts to exterior ornamentation.”
Unfortunately, Abraham found too often fasteners were “looked at as a minor commodity.” Assignments were made to people just learning how to be a buyer. It was an area in which managers felt one couldn’t cause much damage.”
Abraham knows better. “The threads have to fit. You can’t fail at heat treating the parts. If the dashboard has squeaks and rattles, it’s probably a fastener,” she mentioned.
Abraham’s tactic to convince executives of the need to pay attention to fasteners was to remind them of the sound of air guns on the plant floor. They all know the sound, but they don’t realize that there is a fastener being installed with each and every one of them.
Buying $600 Million in Fasteners for GM
By the time she took early retirement in 2000 she was GM’s North American fastener commodity manager, responsible for buying $600 million in fasteners.
Among her GM duties was mentoring minority suppliers, including Detroit Heading.
“I knew most of the people who worked here,” she recalled. She had visited the plant many times to inspect and to reward employees for a job well done.
“It was a part of my job. It never occurred to me that I would be back as president.”
The partnership was originally between Thomas Sims Jr. as the majority owner and Ring Screw as the 49% partner. Textron Inc. acquired Ring Screw in 1998 and the stake in Detroit Heading with it.
In 2000 Sims passed away after a short illness while a new 95,000 sq ft plant was under construction in a Renaissance subzone of central Detroit.
“He never got a chance to work in this building,” Abraham lamented.
As the GM fastener manager, Abraham visited with the ailing Sims and his family and spoke at his funeral.
“He taught me a lot of what I know about fasteners. I was mentoring him about business and he was teaching me about the technical aspects of fasteners.”
Later Abraham received a call from Textron. Would she be interested in buying Detroit Heading?
“I was flattered,” Abraham recalled. “But I took three days to think about it.”
At age 48 and with 32 years of corporate experience did she want to step out on her own? She qualified for the GM “30-and-out” pension, and Detroit Heading had a good track record for 12 years.
“It was the perfect opportunity for a person with my background to take it to the next level,” she decided.
Abraham then became one of few minority CEOs in the fastener industry. She doesn’t lead the largest operation nor have the highest profile of any black person in the industry. Charles Corpening may hold that role. As a Citicorp Venture Capital Ltd. vice president, Corpening oversees Citicorp’s FabriSteel and National Machinery holdings.
Abraham stepped into a healthy company. Ken Weddington, the plant manager and first employee of Detroit Heading, recalls that the company opened with five headers and three rollers. Now in its third location, there are 22 headers and 19 rollers.
Detroit Heading has annual sales of $35 million and is QS9000 certified, and its customers include General Motors, New Venture Gear, Ford, Dana and DaimlerChrysler.

Ask the Machine Operators
Abraham knows from her GM experience what a good supplier looks like. “I used to evaluate suppliers. You go in and look for waste, scrap, cleanliness and workers’ compensation issues. There are no bolts on the floor around the machinery that can hurt someone. Safety is a concern. The fasteners are boxed and labeled properly with no mixing,” she listed conditions.
Beyond the material items on the list, Abraham checked with the people on the line. “You ask the operators to see if they know what the part is supposed to look like. I didn’t hesitate to go up to the line and see if the operators have confidence in what they are doing. Are they proud of what they do?”
Abraham knew Detroit Heading already passed her tests, and she signed the papers on July 25, 2000, to buy the 51% ownership. She then took 32 days off – one day for each year she spent at GM – to plan what to do.
Now Abraham is working on a business plan “that grows the business. We will stay in our automotive niche and use it as a foundation to build on.” Detroit Heading continues to seek new customers, including the foreign nameplate “transplants.” She wants to diversify her customer base and have more versatility in her mix.
The new Detroit Heading plant is designed to add heat treating. And Abraham is talking with customers about more assembly work.
Detroit Heading has a track record with “stellar quality ratings,” Abraham remarked. “We are good at what we do.” “Out of millions and millions of fasteners, our discrepancies are minimal. Our customers tell us that.”

Expanding Within Automotive
“I’d like to outgrow this space,” she smiles.
Growth will only be at a pace Detroit Heading can handle. “I’ve seen many companies grow too fast and subsequently get themselves in trouble. Too much too fast can choke you.”
However, instead of growing their automotive business, some fastener companies are divesting because of price cuts. Abraham knows the auto industry from inside and is confident of the future.
“Yes, I know they have cost-cutting goals,” Abraham said in reference to her decades of commodity buying. “Automakers understand where costs can be cut, and where they can’t. They have teams of experts who have evaluated value-added content of parts and components. There is not a lot of value added in most fasteners. Typically it’s wire in, parts out. Many of the other processes are fixed with outside burdens that are out of the control of the fastener manufacturer. Often there is very little to eliminate in the process of making a bolt. Suppliers must look at improving their processes. To meet the demand of the automakers’ requests to reduce prices, margins are usually sacrificed. These are tough times.”
One thing that isn’t changing is Sims’ philosophy of treating employees well. Plaques posted in the lobby and in the shop quote him: “People, not machines or numbers, are the true value of any business. I have always put my fellow employees first and used their strengths and drive to obtain the goals of the company.”
Abraham views employees as a team. “I would be unable to go out and operate a machine. I make everybody a part of the process. We create the best procedures together and move on. We keep employees informed.”
Abraham is honored that her employees choose to work at Detroit Heading. “Many of my employees come a long way and pass many other companies to get to Detroit Heading,” she says with a smile. Among her other goals is to encourage other minority businesses by considering suppliers in everything from paper products to insurance. She hopes Detroit Heading will be offering scholarships and assisting trade schools with a curriculum that teaches cold heading and cold forming to students who are mechanically inclined. “Universities aren’t for everyone,” she noted. “This could afford an opportunity for a career that otherwise would not be available to this community. “
She is a member of the Michigan Minority Business Development Council as well as the National Association of Black Automotive Suppliers. “It is hard to get into the automotive business,” Abraham observed. As with other aspects of life, the “top 20 companies supply 80% of products,” and it is difficult to get a foot in the door. Detroit Heading already has both feet in the door, and Abraham wants to encourage other minority businesses by mentoring just as she did at GM.
Detroit Heading’s process capabilities include heading, threading, trimming and pointing from M-8 to M-16 and up to 125 mm. Detroit Heading LLC is located at 6421 Lynch Rd., Detroit, MI 48234. Tel: 313 267-2240 Fax 313 267-2061 Web: ©2001/2012 Fastener Industry News
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