Chairman and chief executive officer, Lear Corporation
Born: February 15, 1946, in Detroit, Michigan.
Education: Northwood University, BA, 1992.
Family: Married Pamela Kittleson; children: two.
Career: Lear Siegler, 1971–1998, sales; Lear Corporation, 1988–2000, president and chief operating officer; 2000–2003, president and chief executive officer; 2003–, chairman and chief executive officer.
Address: Lear Corporation, 21557 Telegraph Road, Southfield, Michigan 48086; http://www.lear.com.
■ Robert E. "Bob" Rossiter, who preferred employees and colleagues to call him Bob, crowned more than three decades at Lear Corporation by becoming its chairman and chief executive officer in 2003. Lear was the world's largest supplier of automotive interior systems in 2003, with $15.7 billion in revenues. The company's rapid growth resulted from an aggressive acquisition and globalization strategy that started in the 1990s. Rossiter was part of this strategy as a member of the board of directors starting in 1988. He assumed the role of board chairman as well as the company's CEO in 2003, taking responsibility for the strategic direction and operational leadership of the corporation. His stated goal as head of Lear was to ensure that the company eliminated all forms of waste, to continually raise the bar on customer satisfaction levels, and to grow the company's market-leading position.
Rossiter was born into a working-class family in post–World War II Detroit, one of eight children. Raised in a blue-collar culture in which employees stayed with one company for decades and hard work was valued over education, Rossiter joined what was then called Lear Siegler as a sales representative in 1971 and served in various sales positions until 1988. That year he became president and chief operating officer of the company after a management buyout that gave control to a core of executives who had risen through the ranks of the organization. The managers behind the buyout still ran Lear at the beginning of the 21st century. To help finance the 1988 buyout, Rossiter took out a second mortgage on his house.
Through the 1990s, Rossiter was known as "Mr. Outside" to CEO Ken Way's "Mr. Inside." Way directed Lear's growth, overseeing its transformation from a relatively small supplier of seats to the Big Three automakers to a far-reaching producer of automotive interiors and electronics. Meanwhile, Rossiter cultivated relations with companies in the United States and worldwide, using his knowledge of the industry to help shape company growth.
Rossiter and the Lear management team experienced seismic shifts in the automotive world that shaped their careers from the 1970s into the 2000s. During that era Detroit lost its dominance as the world's automotive hub, ceding its manufacturing dominance to Japan and learning to adapt to a world of global outsourcing of components, supplies, and services. Rossiter and Lear's other managers proved skillful in adapting to the changing environment.
As chairman, Rossiter made his awareness of customer concerns a central part of his management approach, and he set the company on track toward a sales goal of $25 billion in 2005, up from nearly $16 billion in 2003. Rossiter worked to eliminate all forms of waste in the company's structure and accounting, fostering continual improvement in customer satisfaction and stimulating company growth into a world-leading supplier of complete automotive interior systems. According to Rossiter, Lear's growth strategy was based on the following components: find your customers, get their businesses, take care of your customers, throw out your ego, never pat yourself on the back for a job well done, what you get is what you give, work hard, make decisions, do not be afraid to fail, and learn from your mistakes.
Part of that growth came from the expansion of Lear's international operations based in Sulzbach, Germany. Sulzbach was the touchstone of Lear's aggressive acquisition of suppliers in the 1990s to bolster its Detroit operations. Such an approach was necessary, Lear managers maintained, as the automotive industry itself became more global. At the turn of the century, more than 70 percent of Lear's business remained with the Big Three Detroit auto companies, but the company set a goal of boosting its Japanese business from less than one-tenth to almost one-fifth of its revenues.
The company also had the good fortune of being a leader in interiors for trucks and sport utility vehicles, which exploded on the North American market in the 1990s. Lear also expanded its offerings as an automotive supplier, implementing an electronics growth strategy with the purchase of the Dearborn, Michigan, company Supplier United Technologies Automotive for $2.3 billion in 1998. A slowdown in the North American auto industry in the middle of the 21st century's first decade posed challenges for the company that were softened somewhat by its global diversification of assets, the result of earlier positioning by the company. At the end of 2003, Lear had 289 facilities located in 34 countries, with more than 110,000 employees worldwide.
Rossiter also made sure that Lear never became too hierarchical, using his own experience in the company's trenches to relate to and communicate with workers who in many businesses would not have had an opportunity to interact with the boss. Given its origins in the management buyout, Lear was an entrepreneurial company in which division heads controlled much of the decision-making process, and attracting young management talent was a priority. Rossiter approached his job as a politician-salesman, gleaning information from various sources before deciding on a course of action. A former executive told Automotive News International that Rossiter "will come up to a guy he met five years ago and say, 'Hey, Bill, how are you doing?' … He is the consummate salesman. He knows what you want and how to get it. He has the gift of gab" (December 1, 2000). Rossiter also had the gift of stamina and tried to set an example of hard work from the top. On Saturdays he was usually at his desk by 9 a.m. He did play golf but said he never took the time to be good at it.
With its entrepreneurial, diffused-power approach, Lear became an industry model. As it rocketed up the Fortune 500 list along with its sales, Lear gained recognition both inside and outside the automotive industry for its innovation and quality. In 2004 Fortune magazine recognized Lear as America's Most Admired Company in the motor vehicle parts sector, with a number one ranking for each attribute of reputation in the magazine's annual survey. Lear also received four Ford Motor Company World Excellence awards for its superior performance in 2003. "Improved quality is the bedrock of our strategy to move our company forward," said Rossiter on receiving the recognition. "Achieving quality improvement is not easy" (May 3, 2004).
In 2004 Lear faced the corporate challenge of international competition along with the more serious threat to its internal culture that focused on the tight core of executives who originally bought the company. At the beginning of that year the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched an informal probe into possible padding of the Lear payroll with family members of the executives who ran the company. Attracting the SEC's interest were $7.2 million in payments made in 2001 to Analysts International for software services and computer equipment. Analysts International's Sequoia Services Group employed Terrence Kittleson, Rossiter's brother-in-law, as a sales representative, along with other employees connected to Lear managers. Lear maintained it had nothing to hide and was cooperative with the SEC probe.
Meanwhile, the company continued to work to reduce its debt and unload its poorer-performing assets while maintaining its sales targets. The debt load was the by-product of the company's growth strategy in the 1990s, when the already highly leveraged company took on even more debt to fuel its expansion in automotive interiors. Hit by the automotive recession in 2002, Lear laid off more than 6,500 American workers as part of a cost-cutting strategy to maintain global competitiveness. At the same time, Rossiter became convinced that Lear management needed to expand globally. In a meeting with representatives of DaimlerChrysler, the company formed by a German takeover of the Chrysler corporation, the DaimlerChrysler executives started speaking in German and Rossiter needed a translator. Rossiter, who seldom ventured beyond vacations in northern Michigan when traveling for any reason other than business, said the experience further reinforced his belief that the company needed foreign executives. "Americans don't travel as well as some other people," he said ( Automotive News International , December 1, 2000).
As 2005 approached, Lear had apparently stemmed layoffs and brought its heavy debt load under control. Rossiter expected no new major acquisitions, meaning the company's aggressive revenue growth targets would have to be met the hard way, through internal sales growth and by winning new contracts worldwide. The company set up operations in Brazil and Thailand to continue to penetrate global markets and added some of the foreign executives Rossiter desired. The company also heavily bet on growth in its European markets, where Rossiter felt the company's foreign operations and leaner cost structure would make it competitive in markets where European suppliers had traditionally reigned supreme. "Despite challenging industry and economic conditions, we continued to meet aggressive customer requirements and post solid financial results," Rossiter said in April 2004. "We intend to maintain our positive momentum by staying focused on what we can control—quality, customer service, cost and delivery" ( PR Newswire , April 26, 2004).
See also entry on Lear Siegler Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories .
"Bob Rossiter Profile," Northwood Idea: The Journal of Northwood University , September 2003, pp. 3-4.
Carter, Sharon Silke, "Auto-Parts Supplier Under Scrutiny Over Filing," Dow Jones News Service , January 21, 2004.
"Lear Honored with Ford's 2003 World Excellence Awards, PR Newswire, May 3, 2004.
"Lear Posts Record First Quarter Net Sales of $4.5 Billion," PR Newswire, April 26, 2004.
Sedgwick, David, "The Buying Binge Is Over," Automotive News International , December 2000, pp. 16-21.
Truby, Mark, "Lear Thrives, Building More Into Each Vehicle," Detroit News , July 29, 2003.