Thomas Sundberg must have been a football coach in a prior life.

With a booming voice, infectious enthusiasm and a certain tempered gruffness, it's easy to imagine Mr. Sundberg spending a fall Sunday afternoon jawing a wad of bubble gum and throwing his headset in disgust at inept officiating.

He also has the passion and drive. As director of Lear Corp.'s Second Stage Manufacturing unit, Mr. Sundberg is pushing his team in a campaign that will change the way the entire industry perceives his company.

The interior mega-suppliers are playing like it's the playoffs, under the stark realization that second-best doesn't win a championship ring.

Mr. Sundberg looks at the competition and sees Johnson Controls Inc. winning a starting position as quarterback of General Motors Corp.'s interior outsourcing strategy (see story, p. 42). And Mr. Sundberg eyes with envy the secret weapon of Magna International Inc. — its Steyr vehicle assembly plant in Graz, Austria.

Mr. Sundberg has his own game plan based on Lear's ability to spin off niche vehicles from existing platforms. For a growing number of customers, Lear is installing some unique features that will attract a certain type of buyer, be it a Texas dude ranch leather aficionado or a boating enthusiast.

Some of this work can be done in the vehicle assembly plant, but in some cases Lear suggests taking the finished vehicle off the assembly line down the road to a Lear plant, where these special features will be installed. Hence the name — Second Stage Manufacturing.

Since February, Lear has been doing exactly that in Missouri. Lear receives unfinished Chevy Express LT/GMC Savana SLT vans from GM's Wentzville assembly plant and ships them to a nearby Lear plant, where it installs the entire interior, including wiring, carpet, door panels, seats and VCR, with flip-down monitors.

The only interior features installed by GM at Wentzville are the steering wheel, instrument panel and a temporary driver's seat. Currently, one in 10 vehicles produced at Wentzville goes to Lear for the interior treatment.

For the Excursion sport/utility vehicle, Ford Motor Co. asked Lear to redesign the headliner to include a backseat entertainment system. It represents the first online installation of such a feature.

Beginning this fall, Lear will launch 10 similar programs with other customers, Mr. Sundberg says. Some of the jobs include exterior cladding, wheels and rear deck spoilers.

He sees Second Stage Manufacturing as an extension of the industry's “mass customization” trend to meet individual needs of vehicle buyers. He says the average truck buyer spends about $3,000 for aftermarket goodies.

But Second Stage Manufacturing has the potential to impact much more than niche vehicles. Mr. Sundberg says the concept can work just as well for installing complete interiors in high-volume cars. Could GM use this process for small cars or luxury cars? It's possible, says Bo Andersson, GM's executive in charge of worldwide purchasing. He says interior suppliers such as Lear do more research about consumer preferences than GM, and there's a good business case.

It's this vote of confidence that turns Mr. Sundberg into a cheerleader at a pep rally during a recent interview. “We're going to the Super Bowl, and you don't go there to lose!” he exclaims.

If he's victorious, he might end up with a cooler full of ice dumped on his head.

Listen to Tom Murphy and other Ward's editors Monday and Thursday on WJR 760 AM radio in Detroit.
tmurphy@intertec.com