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Group links auto advocates via:The Detroit News

Daniel Howesoriginally for The Detroit News

In the depths of the automotive collapse three years ago, Sandy Baruah headed the Small Business Administration and found himself lobbying Congress to support a federal rescue of Detroit’s automakers and their sprawling supply chain.

He encountered trade associations representing auto interests in South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. But Michigan, the historic and still undeniable home to the industry that put the United States (and many foreign countries) on wheels? Nope, nothing quite like its rivals — until now.

Days before the North American International Auto Show opens amid rising sales for Detroit, cautious optimism and an assurance that the hometown companies and their union finally may have come to terms with their myriad shortcomings, here comes MICHauto. It’s a new automotive trade association intended to be a one-stop advocacy and economic development shop for the Big Mitten’s auto interests.

All of them — from General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC and such major suppliers as Delphi Automotive PLC, Meritor Inc. and BorgWarner Inc. to smaller suppliers, state universities and community colleges minting the engineers and assembly line workers of tomorrow.

“The international auto industry is a growth industry,” Baruah, now CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, said in an interview Thursday. “It’s the most integrated industry out there. We have to fight in the international marketplace … for what is rightfully ours as a Michigan auto industry. We just can’t assume it’s ours.”

No, we can’t, if the past 30 years, historic bankruptcies and horrifying job losses are any guide. They are, which is why as much as the pain of the past three years (and more) may stand as an iron-clad argument to diversify Michigan’s economy, they also make the case to care for what produced so much of the state’s modern-day prosperity lest it disappear.

“Michigan needs to expand beyond the auto industry,” says Tim Manganello, chairman of Auburn Hills-based BorgWarner and a member of MICHauto’s CEO advisory board. “But it makes no sense to ignore the big dog that created the wealth” and is a foundational industry for the state and a cornerstone of American manufacturing.

He’s right. The question is how to find the balance that MICHauto and others seek.

Under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, state economic development policy unofficially distanced Michigan from its gritty, unionized, oil-and-metal automotive present. Too often, it sided with the labor-dominated past and lofty visions of the future instead of pushing to compete in the hard-headed present.

Her mantra was advanced manufacturing and green propulsion systems, life sciences and homeland security, even as business taxes remained uncompetitive and CEOs routinely complained of a bureaucratic maze that made the investment process protracted, expensive and frustrating.

Under Gov. Rick Snyder, a business-minded Republican with roots in high technology and venture capital, taxes for smaller firms are set to decline this year, job creation is up and the automakers given up for dead are booking fat profits on comparatively meager sales volumes in the bellwether U.S. market.

Talk about timing. Now is as good a time as any in the past dozen years, or more, to launch something like MICHauto, a chamber-staffed enterprise with a positive, credible story of restructuring and redemption to tell would-be investors from the States and abroad:

The hometown industry has mostly come to terms with its bad, old habits. It is charting a more realistic path with organized labor. It is delivering one solid product after another, and demonstrating a knack for integrating advanced technology and clean propulsion into its vehicles — hardly the markers of losers who cannot build anything people want to buy.

MICHauto aims to become an advocate in Lansing for issues that affect the automakers and their suppliers; to lead economic development efforts, including international trade missions; to serve as a public voice and trade association for the industry; to work with partners, especially universities, community colleges and the United Auto Workers, to ensure a continuing flow of talent to employers.

“At the very least, we’re going to be collaborating with the union,” Baruah says. “We’re not going to act like the UAW doesn’t exist. That’s just not reality in Michigan.”

No, it isn’t. Nor is the dated caricature of an industry that can’t get its proverbial act together — because it has, and it’s just getting started.
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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

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