FRANKFURT – If Delphi Corp. files for bankruptcy in the next month, its customers will see no interruption in the delivery of parts worldwide and the proceedings will have no impact whatsoever on the supplier's operations outside the U.S., the company's new chairman and CEO says.

Robert “Steve” Miller, who accepted the formidable job two months ago to turn around Delphi's unprofitable U.S. operations, used his speech here at the Frankfurt auto show – as well as private meetings with customers – to assuage concerns about the viability of the world's No.1 supplier.

“The word bankruptcy scares people, particularly here in Europe, where it means the same as liquidation and shutdown of the business,” Miller says.

“If Delphi were to choose Chapter 11, it will be business as usual, in Europe, in the rest of the world, even in the U.S., while we adjust our labor costs,” Miller says of Delphi's uncompetitive U.S. wage structure. “I'll still be in charge.”

And in a highly unusual turn, Miller used the speech to berate fellow auto supplier Collins & Aikman Corp. for poorly handling its own bankruptcy case, which began May 17.

Delphi's Miller meets press in Frankfurt.

“They were an embarrassment to our whole industry, not because they had to file Chapter 11 but because of the way they did it,” Miller tells the crowd in his speech. “We are facing our problem realistically while we are still strong,” he says. “Collins & Aikman was in denial about their problems until they went off the cliff.”

Miller says he singled out C&A because many customers fear a Delphi bankruptcy filing would follow C&A's path. Without identifying individuals, Miller lambasted those in charge of C&A at the time of the filing.

“My management team, including myself, will continue to operate the company until we are safely restructured,” Miller says. “The CEO of Collins & Aikman quit and left town when it hit the wall, leaving behind a terrible mess.”

David Stockman, C&A's former chairman and CEO, was forced out by the company's board of directors May 12. Businessman Charles Becker served briefly as Stockman's replacement until the July hiring of former Federal-Mogul Corp. CEO Frank Macher as CEO of C&A.

Miller describes Macher as a personal friend and says he is confident in Macher's ability to provide proper leadership for the Troy, MI, interior trim supplier. Before Macher's arrival however, Miller says C&A was in shambles.

“C&A was a total wreck, with no money and no plans (to exit bankruptcy),” Miller says. “If we should choose to use a Chapter 11 process, we will be well financed, well planned and well organized.”

Miller says in previous positions he led both Federal-Mogul and Bethlehem Steel “through extremely difficult reorganizations and never missed a shipment nor demanded premium prices” from customers. “Collins & Aikman is restructuring on the backs of their customers.”

C&A in July reportedly won bankruptcy court approval for a $30 million loan from its customers to cover short-term operating costs.

And some industry observers suggest C&A is using its bankruptcy as a strategy to force auto makers to pay higher component prices.

It appears the C&A bankruptcy case will be mired in the courts for some time.

New York investment firm McKay Shields LLC has filed a lawsuit in Michigan accusing Stockman of inducing investors to buy C&A debt by manipulating and falsifying financial documents in an effort to conceal the problems that ultimately led to Chapter 11.

Stockman has denied any wrongdoing, although C&A admits to a certain degree of improper accounting. (See related story: Supplier Roundup)

Until now, Miller has been adamant that any restructuring deal with General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers union be hammered out before Oct. 17, when new bankruptcy legislation takes effect that Miller says will complicate a bankruptcy filing and impede Delphi at a time when the supplier has no time to waste. (See related story: Chapter 11 or Not, Delphi to Be Changed Company, Miller Says)

But here at the show, Miller told the Financial Times that Delphi would be willing to extend that deadline if it is clear talks with the UAW and GM covering a potential a multibillion dollar bailout are on the proper course.

Miller describes Delphi's situation as dire, saying the supplier has about 30,000 UAW union members (inherited from GM in the 1999 spin-off) earning the same wages as those at Big Three auto plants. Including benefits, each of these employees costs Delphi up to $75 an hour. Globally competitive suppliers pay significantly less – between $15 and $25, Miller says, plus benefits.

Compounding the problem is the UAW Jobs Bank, which requires Delphi to pay full wages and benefits to about 4,000 UAW members currently out of work. The Jobs Bank has cost Delphi $100 million in each of the last two quarters.

Miller declined to discuss the status of private talks with the UAW.

“We cannot afford to continue to pay the high labor costs that we have in our U.S. operations,” he says. “The union knows that, and they are going to deal with it and deal with it responsibly.”

Whatever happens with the bankruptcy filing, Miller is attempting to calm the fears of customers here and around the world.

“The problems in the U.S. won't result in resources being drained away from Europe,” Miller says. “Instead, we will be free to invest more aggressively.”

tmurphy@primediabusiness.com