Addressing communication through organizational design

Jan. 1, 2020
John Washbish discusses start-up obstacles and the road ahead for the newly formed Affinia Group in this exclusive Q & A with Aftermarket Business.

Communication is one of a number of issues the newly formed Affinia Group has faced during its first few months in operation.

“It seems like no matter where you go, or how good your people are, when things heat up there is an inverse relationship between the need to communicate and actual communications,” says John Washbish, president of customer relationship management and vice president and general manager of the under vehicle group for the aftermarket manufacturer.

The result of the Cypress Group’s acquisition of Dana’s aftermarket division late last year, Affinia has dealt with some of the rigors of launching a new company, despite the fact that such popular and longstanding brands as Raybestos, Wix and Spicer have been retained. Predictably, this has left little room for new product development — not to mention the recent sale of Beck/Arnley to Heritage Equity Group, Inc. Officials say Beck/Arnley, which sells a horizontal package of import parts, did not fit the vertical nature of Affinia’s other product lines.

Additionally, obsession with OE form, fit and function is a losing strategy, says Washbish, who feels domestic suppliers have taken far too many liberties as far as consolidation of parts. Reiterating the opinion of others in the aftermarket, Washbish sees Affinia leading the way to go beyond the “form, fit and function” mantra to develop parts that fit exactly like OE parts but with quality superior to that offered by the OEM.

Granting an exclusive interview with Aftermarket Business, Washbish recently discussed Affinia’s progress so far, as well as future plans for the company:

What are your thoughts on the Beck/Arnley sale?

We are incredibly excited about the opportunity Beck/Arnley has before them. Beck/Arnley has always had enormous potential but for years has worked under the framework of a larger organization. Today, the power is back in the hands of the people. As a stand-alone company, they can sharpen their focus on their customers in the foreign nameplate market.

What has been the biggest challenge so far for Affinia?

Communications. In our case, the problem is that we are so darn busy with all of this start-up activity layered beneath our customer commitments that we just plain forget to share information with those who need it. We’re addressing this issue for the long term through organizational design. We have a very small marketing team at the corporate level…just four people. Two of these very capable folks are dedicated almost exclusively to fostering communications. And a third is assigned to identifying and applying technology to the problem. A challenge? Absolutely, and one that we’ll be working on continually.

How have people received the Affinia name?

Other than the regional variations in its pronunciation, it’s been great. Folks down south have developed their own phonetic interpretation. They like to rhyme the “…finn…” part with caffeine, so it becomes A-feen-ya.” Being from Kentucky myself, I have to stay up nights practicing, so I can say it like a Yankee.

The name has been well received, internally and externally. It actually is based on the Latin term affinitas, which refers to friendliness and amicable relationships. The question you have to ask is, how important is the name? We had to call the parent company something, and Affinia is just fine. For our customers and our people, it’s really about the brands. Raybestos, Wix, Spicer and the rest of our brands are the basis for our place in the market and our relationships throughout the industry supply chain.

Have any of your past business philosophies changed since the Cypress acquisition? If so, how?

In a word: no. The management of Affinia is unchanged. Terry McCormack, Keith Wilson, Jerry McCabe, Bill Sheehan, Gary O’Connor, Mike Zissman, Rod Nineham, Mike Fiorito…and I, along with many others, are the people who know these businesses, know the customers and know the brands. We continue to hold the same values and focus on the same things that we always have: our people, our customers and our performance.  By keeping it this simple we keep everyone on board and rowing together.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the way the people of Cypress have involved themselves without encroaching has renewed the confidence of this team. While that is not a change in business philosophy as you asked, I can tell you it is making a tremendous difference here and at all of our touch points beyond these walls.

Has China affected your role in the aftermarket? If so, how? How formidable a force do you see China being in upcoming years?

China and the entire globalization of the automotive OEM and aftermarket business has had a powerful impact on everyone’s operations. But as significant as the impact has been on pricing, it couldn’t have happened without the radical paradigm shift we’ve seen in the market. Independent repair technicians have done a 180 on their attitude about the country of origin issue. 

Not so many years ago, working as a field salesperson, I witnessed firsthand the negative and almost visceral reaction repair technicians had when presented with parts made in the Pacific Rim. It was as if someone had brought a rabid animal into their shop; they wanted it out and they wanted it out now. Today, there is no reaction…just acceptance.  Technicians seem to understand that parts, like cars, are made all over the world. They accept that, if a part carries the name of a reputable supplier and was made to their specifications, it is an acceptable product. This staggering shift in perception has helped to create a very challenging situation for domestic manufacturers.

Related to this issue, and the fact that domestic suppliers have taken far too many liberties in consolidating parts for multiple applications, there seems to have developed an obsession in some quarters for OEM form, fit and function. The problem I have with that obsession, if allowed to continue unbridled to its logical conclusion, is that it’s a losing strategy. How will the aftermarket beat the OEMs if the best we can say is our products are just like theirs? I think there will be growing pressure on domestic aftermarket manufacturers to make and market parts that fit exactly and look substantially like OE, but are better than those offered by the OEM in some way. Companies with resources, like Affinia, are in a good position to do that. 

How have changes in the distribution channel affected Affinia, if at all?

If you take all of the changes we’ve seen in the last few years — product, quality, technology, consolidation, parts proliferation — we could name scores of things. If you consider them all and then ask how has it affected Affinia, or anyone, the fundamental answer is this: We have learned to accept and deal with change. Now, you can deal with change in two ways. You can adapt, or you can lead. Although we have adapted at times, our intention for the future is to lead. We owe that type of performance to our people and our customers.

Ours is a dynamic and fluid marketplace where change, whether we like it or not, is bound to occur. These days, being able to respond quickly is every bit as important as being able to plan. I have a friend who often says, “Man plans, God laughs.”

My point is that change is inevitable. When you ask if changes are coming that you should be aware of, the best answer I can give you is that, regardless of the nature or magnitude of whatever changes are coming, Affinia and its companies are better prepared than ever to face them. That’s the kind of confidence we have in our people, our customers and our performance.

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